Learning From The 1918 Influenza Pandemic: Day 9

John Dill Robertson

He’s known as “Dill Pickle” by some in his department, by some of his followers. He is Dr. John Dill Robertson, public health director for the city of Chicago, Illinois. On this day, Day 9 of the Influenza Pandemic (September 16, 1918), Dr. Robertson announces to the people of Chicago that influenza is now a reportable disease. Big deal? Honestly, yes, it is for the folks in his purview. For one, Robertson’s announcement gives this unfolding tragedy a sort of focal point—the residents of Chicago know what to look for, know where to go to report and update, know that maybe a better grasp on the reality of this thing is possible. It’s a step. It’s more than they had yesterday in this hellishness.

On this same day as his announcement, “Dill Pickle” Robertson orders his team at the Chicago health department to begin writing and producing information placards—small cardboard squares on which details are printed about why it’s important to stay home and the dangers of recklessly spitting, coughing, and sneezing around other people. Spitting is an especially controversial topic–people in 1918 have a habit of spitting everywhere. Robertson’s staff leaps today to tackle the assignment; the cardboard placards will be distributed just hours from now. Every copy off the press is a form of information.

And still true today on Day 9 is the vague knowledge in every city, town, and village with influenza—about a day or so ago, surprising numbers of people who had the illness started dying very quickly. No one is completely sure but it feels as if some invisible door has opened. A threshold has been crossed, in the dark.

A thought for you on Day 9, March 21, 2020, nine days after President Trump declares Covid-19 a national emergency—because this event begins at the bottom and rises up and spreads, you see emerge people who you either didn’t know or didn’t expect to show their mettle as leaders. It doesn’t mean they have all the answers. It does mean that you need to be open to appreciating the efforts, insights, and potential guidance they can offer. And here’s something else: has it occurred to you that you might be one of those people who emerges? Remember Dill Pickle.

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