The Influenza Pandemic of 1918—A Personal Narrative of Heartbreaking Loss

Thursday, November 6, 2014 - 1:30pm to Sunday, November 30, 2014 - 10:00pm


Over the past decade, History & Special Collections for the Sciences (in UCLA Library Special Collections) has been building, piece by piece, a research collection of narratives, manuscripts, and ephemera about the 1918-1919 influenza global pandemic.

Two years ago, antiquarian bookseller/ephemera dealer Marc Selvaggio offered and sold us a unique album documenting the short military career and demise of a soldier, Alton W. Miller, who died shortly before the end of World War I without having left U.S. soil.

We do not know who lovingly organized the album by carefully labeling photographs and transcribing handwritten letters. A final entry inside the album cover, in the organizer's hand, reports that his sister,  "Ada Miller died June 15, 1989, age 97" ... more than 70 years after her younger brother.

An exhibit at the UCLA Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library for November 2014 lays out nearly the entire album (BIOMED Manuscript Collection no. 509.052 RARE), starting with photographs of Miller, his family, and friends. His driving and chauffeur's license are followed by draft and report-for-duty notices from 1918.

Miller wrote long and detailed letters from Ft. Dix (New Jersey) and Camp Taylor (Kentucky), describing camp life, training, recreation, daily routine and his acceptance to Officers Training School.

On October 5, 1918, his news was ominous: "Things are getting worse and worse here... Don't get frightened but I have had the Influenza for four days but I have not let the authorities know about it yet. I think I can bring myself around if I can keep up long enough... The worst part of it is, it takes the life right out of you. For a couple of days I thought I would keel over every other step. Our hospitals are overcrowded here and I think in a week the whole camp will be quarantined. The treatment you get at the hospitals is absolutely rotten they say. It is so crowded you don't get enough to eat and it is very dirty and most of the nurses and attendants have got it too. So once you go in you have a hard time getting out." Later that day he wrote another letter: "I am not going to that blooming hospital if I can help it. I feel a lot better today. I have only been in bad shape one day...I dropped three times but there was no one around to see me so it was all right... I'll tell you how you feel when you have it. 1. A severe pain in the head and temples throb. 2. Dizziness. 3. Pain in the back from kidneys to shoulders. 4. Sore throat and a cold in the lungs. 5. Sometimes sick in stomach. 6. Absolutely no ambition." (Selection of quotations and highlights of the album are based on Marc Selvaggio's detailed description.)

On Oct 6th Miller wrote his last letter home: "It is a beautiful morning, I am sitting on my bunk which is outside the barracks... ambulances are running in every direction out here. They haven't closed the camp yet but I think they will soon...What did you think of the news this morning? I would like the war to end but I would also like to get to France..." The next letters are from an attending officer and a chaplain advising Miller's parents of his illness. These are followed by a series of telegrams first advising them of the increasing gravity of their son's condition and finally of his death. Other telegrams concern arrangements for sending Miller's body home.

Also included are two letters of condolence, a lithographed memorial pictorial frame, "One of Our Boys of 1917," with a mounted photo of Cpl. Miller at center and, finally, Mrs. Miller's "Gold Star Mother" medal issued by the city of Kingston.