Past pandemic offers a COVID-19 perspective
As Middlebury and the nation struggle with coronavirus, death and the changes to our daily lives, I am reminded that my grandfather Jacob Johnson Ross, M.D., joined the U.S. Army in 1918 and left his family in Middlebury to serve as the Flight Surgeon with the 17th Aero Squadron. War was waging in Europe and the Spanish Influenza was raging in much of the world, including Vermont.
In the Sheldon archives are the letters exchanged between Dr. Ross and his wife Hannah Elizabeth Holmes Ross. They had met at UVM, from which they both graduated. Jacob Ross was from Huntington, Vt., where his family were farmers. Hannah Ross was from Charlotte, Vt., where her father owned an apple orchard on the lake and raised Morgan Horses.
Mrs. Ross stayed at home in Middlebury, caring for their three children, all under 10 years old — Katherine (my mother), Ruth, and Austin. They often visited Mrs. Ross’ parents at the farm in Charlotte. Jacob’s letters describe life as a flight surgeon at war; Hannah’s letters detail daily life in Middlebury with frequent mention of the impact of the Spanish Influenza, usually referred to as the flu.
Central to both correspondents are expressions of their love and anticipation of their reunion at the conclusion of the war. The letters range from the departure of Dr. Ross in April 1918 to his return in March 1919. In early October, 1918, Mrs. Ross writes, “This is a lousy time for the doctors, though the worst is over here in Middlebury, at least as far as college goes. Colds, grip, influenza; schools and churches and movies are closed and everybody is staying at home,” and “There have been a few deaths at College from pneumonia following influenza.”
A few days later she laments, “We are having some terrible weather, rain, rain. It is awful for farmers. I guess potatoes will all rot in the ground and beans in the fields. Influenza is raging in camps and cities, but so long as good news comes from ‘Over There’ I guess we can stand it. One surely realizes that there is a terrible shortage of doctors already felt here at home, though I don’t suppose it is near as bad as it is in England and France. Burlington is sending doctors to Montpelier and Barre, where there are 3,500 cases of influenza.
“Nurses are at a premium and soon they won’t be fussy about an applicant having a high-school education. I wonder what throes of agony this Old World will yet have to go through before we can emerge in newer, happier, more Christ-like living.” And “There were no church services of any kind today and most schools and all are closed,” and “A letter from Mother Just today says there were lots of cases of sickness in Charlotte. I do hope they escape, as they are so far from a doctor.”
In early January 1919, Mrs. Ross recounts, “Saw Professor Cady on my way to Sunday school and he asked what you were going to do and I told him help take care of flu, I guess. He said ‘I guess he’ll find plenty of flu is raging in Bristol and in some other towns. Not so bad here as last October and November. Mrs. Flag has it and Dr. Flag told Maude he had turned down $50 worth of work yesterday. Said he did not want to ask anyone to come in nor would he accept any of flu, so they could not say he has spread it.” Later that month, hoping Dr. Ross would soon return with the possibility of meeting him when this troop ship landed in New York Harbor, she lamented, “It will all depend on the flu. It rages first in one place and then another.”
She did not travel to New York to meet his boat, rather upon landing in late March 1919, Dr. Ross hurried back to Middlebury because Ruth is ill. Just days after his return, young 5-year-old Ruth died of influenza-related symptoms. Dr. Ross had spent almost a year overseas caring for the pilots and support staff of the 17th Aero Squadron and attending to patients in hospitals throughout the war zone, only to return to witness the death of his beloved middle child.
During their correspondence, Mrs. Ross often referred to Ruth and the children. In one letter Mrs. Ross describes the two younger children: “Ruth and Austin are so well and happy. I wish you could see Ruth eat. It would do your heart good. A potato, ear of corn, whole roll, and grapes to finish off with. She speaks now of all of you when she eats a big dinner or a big dish of anything. Austin is going to be such a big boy. He and Ruth are such devoted chums. It would be hard caring for one without the other.” And “The children are wild over your return. It’s ‘Daddy!’ every now and then. What they will do when Daddy comes! You should have heard your son saying ‘Daddy has a sweetheart and My is his name.’ He calls himself My. He and Ruth visit like two old folks and we can’t understand half they say unless paying strict attention.”
Ruth is buried in the Ross family plot in Middlebury cemetery on Route 30 across from the College Art and Athletic Centers. Dr. Ross went on to a successful medical practice in Middlebury and two additional children were born — Charles and Helen.
Dr. Ross died in 1929 of an appendicitis attack and Mrs. Ross in 1937 of tuberculosis.
William Brooks is Executive Director of the Henry Sheldon Museum in Middlebury.
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