Asian Flu Epidemic

“Chinese Flu” or “Kung Flu.”  Pick one from column A,  one from column B. With both you get fevers and chills.

And racism.

Whatever you want to call it, Trump’s ignorant tweet referring to the Coronavirus as the Chinese flu smacks of bigotry. His all too predictable xenophobic hate and pathological need to blame the other is spreading among his loyal followers as fast as the coronavirus itself is. Following suit, a White House official referred to the Coronavirus as “The Kung Flu.”

It’s not the first time a finger has pointed the blame of an epidemic on China.

Just like today, in the winter of 1957, the war against a viral epidemic raged.

All but forgotten was the devastating Asiatic Flu of 1957.

Originating in China it went from an epidemic to a pandemic quickly. The worst flu outbreak since 1918, was an entirely new strain and there was no immunity. A strain of Avian flu, it disproportionately targeted young people along with the elderly and frail. Researchers scrambled for a vaccine.

Panic and fear swept the nation and a country looking to place blame somewhere pointed it towards the far East. The flu terrorized counties worldwide and even closer to home, my own family.

Nearly 30 years had passed since the last major influenza outbreak of the Spanish flu of 1918 and it took the world by surprise

It had been initially a quiet influenza season. However, by April newspapers began reporting that an influenza epidemic had affected thousands of Hong Kong residents starting rapid movement across the east with 100,000 cases in Taiwan by mid-May and over a million in India by June.

By  autumn health officials concerned about the Asian flu wrote ominously:

“Although we have had 30 years to prepare for what should be done in the event of an influenza pandemic, I think we have all been rushing around trying to improvise investigations with insufficient time to do it properly.

A Chilly Cold War Winter

Vintage ad for Aspri Asian Flu

The winter of 1957 would prove to be a very chilly one in my Cold war childhood.

While the flu was on the march and health authorities everywhere were girding for battle against this pandemic. The dreaded flu hit my own mother hard.

Despite all my Mother’s precautions by December she started sending out distress signals. Knocked out with the all too familiar quartet of body aches, fever, sniffles, and cough, our germ proof house had been invaded; Mom got the flu.

As obsessed as my father was with the Cold War, my mother was equally concerned about the war on colds.

To each end, they were constantly on alert for unseen, unknown, camouflaged enemies ready to insinuate themselves into our safe environment.

I was always told the best way to avoid contagious diseases, was to avoid any and all contact with anyone coughing or sneezing in your immediate perimeter. Like a heat-seeking missile, a careless sneeze, or an explosive cough could shoot troublesome germs in your direction at a mile a minute speed.

Choose One from Column A  and One From Column B

Because the Asiatic virus had originated in China, blame was pointed to the Far East.

Always convinced it was the sub gum chow mein that was the culprit for her cold, Mom was sure she had seen the waiter at Chung King Gardens, sneeze into her food. Dad, on the other hand, was sure the guilty party was to be found at Ming’s Chinese Laundry where Mom dropped off his shirts every week. Ming’s wife always seemed to have a hacking cough, as she sprayed his Van Heusen shirts with heavy starch.

Whatever the origin, that winter Mom came down not with a mere cold but with a nasty case of the Asiatic Flu that was spreading through the country.

My vigilant mother had read all the warnings in the newspapers and listened soundly to the radio reports. In early September CBS radio had enlisted Walter Cronkite to narrate a special report on the state of the flu explaining what was happening to combat the outbreak and what we could expect. It gave Mom the willys.

Everyone braced for the worst. Americans communities faced a grave emergency because of this flu. The public was was panicking- yet another invisible invader that could attack without warning. Like the Soviet Satellite Sputnik, it was traveling around the world at an alarming speed.

While the government was working like mad to get a vaccine available, that pesky little devil of a virus snuck into Moms bloodstream when no one was looking.

“Like the Communists takeover in a susceptible 1949 China  ” Dad grumbled derisively, “the flu had infiltrated the United States and established a beachhead in our very own home.”

It was all-out war.

Asiatic Flu

Asiatic flu was a new and highly infectious form of influenza which had originated in Red China.

Dad was certain this latest epidemic was true germ warfare, certain that Chairman Mao had something to do with the virus’s Great Leap Forward.

Previously, the Chinese had bitterly accused fair-minded Americans, of secretly using germ warfare during the Korean conflict, and now Dad was sure they were retaliating. The Chinese themselves were on the march towards massive power.

“The Red Army had a bloody record of aggression in Korea and Quemoy,” Dad griped, “and now their damn Commie Virus had invaded us.”

Fowl Play

The flu had brutally taken over much of the eastern seaboard this winter and like the insurgent Communists, posed a grave threat to the free healthy members of our house. Both situations required corrective.

Once Mom’s fever rose above 101, the cold war got hot.

Just as our government would eventually devise “Operation Mongoose,” a plan to overthrow Fidel Castro’s Communist regime in Cuba , together my parents adopted a course of pre-emptive and covert action that they hoped would work. The flu had penetrated through our fortifications, and a can-do-decisive Dad had a battle plan of his own: Operation Chicken Soup.

His Mission:  intercept and render the flu inoperable.

Dad quickly mobilized and called for reinforcements.  Acute care services were brought in immediately.

On the right flank was family physician Dr. Epstein, a proponent of biological and chemical warfare. He was at a disadvantage in utilizing a flu vaccine. Imposing a containment policy for Mom, he ordered enforced bed rest, plenty of liquids and Bayer aspirin.

On the left flank would be my grandmother Nana Sadie, who would be deployed from Manhattan the next day at 0:800. A  decorated Veteran of the Flu Epidemic of 1918 she was armed to battle the enemy the best way she knew how- arriving loaded down with shopping bags filled with cans of disinfectants and a cache of secret ingredients for her chicken soup.

Dad barked orders at all of us: Were we doing all we could in combating infectious germs. How often had we washed our hands?  Or were we complacent, while the insurgents try to seize power?


Air Defense

vintage ads health listerine lysol germs

 Immediately upon landing the following morning, my Nana wasted no time. She would take the offensive with the pre-emptive striking power of Lysol, Lestoil and Listerine, to immobilize and incapacitate any rogue germs.

Boots on the ground, mink hat still on her head, Nana Sadie had us all gargling with Listerine. The first line of infiltration was the throat. You had to strike at throat infections before the germs got a foothold.

The warning signal – a tickle in the throat- nature’s way of saying “Look Out- Danger Ahead: the bacteria is getting the upper hand! The throat is an open door for infection laying out a welcome mat for all kinds of germs,” Listerine ads cautioned ominously.

The next engagement was a full-frontal attack on dirt. Every counter, every surface in the house was scoured and sanitized.

Operation: Air Borne.  

health flu 1918 handkerchief

 Nana was certain the air was filled with dust and germs which could then be inhaled. The menacing fact about this potent flu virus was that when scattered by an infected sneeze, or a soiled hanky, it could continue to live in household dust and infect the whole family with the flu even six weeks later!

With the knowledge gained from the 1918 Influenza epidemic, Nana explained, “spittle contains many little disease germs and when the spittle dries these little germs are set free, caught by the wind and begin to fly about.”

Therefore, reinforcements of Kleenex were constantly being supplied to the front lines.

Kleenex tissue ad Little Lulu

Tucked into her sleeve, or balled up in her pocket, Nana never went anywhere without a tissue at the ready, her first line of defense against deadly germs.

To her, the invention of Kleenex was a modern miracle of science, rivaling sulfa drugs and penicillin in saving mankind. With the simple toss of a disposable Kleenex into a wastebasket, you were wiping out thousands of dangerous enemies, and saving countless lives.

When the miracle that was Kleenex first appeared, even the box itself was proclaimed a marvel of ingenuity, and modern design, “….. cleverly made to hand out automatically through a narrow slit, two tissues at a time ( the correct number for a treatment).”

 1918 Flu Epidemic

health flu epidemic 1918 winter

As a veteran of the first and worst flu epidemic ever, old fears and suspicion born of that war had scarred Nana Sadie for life. An otherwise healthy brother and sister both in their early twenties had perished in the epidemic.

The public, in 1918 was petrified of the Flu.

It was a panicky time when everyone and everything became suspect of contamination mirroring the Red Scare which had reached near hysteria that very year. Provoked by a fear that a Bolshevik revolution in America was imminent – a revolution that would destroy the American Way of Life, ordinary people became suspect of being Anarchists and Communists.

So it was with the Influenza when even everyday items such as handkerchiefs came under scrutiny and attack.

health flu epidemic 1918 posters

Those lovely embroidered, heirloom hankies that every proper lady, gentleman and well brought up child always carried- might well be aiding and abetting unseen armies of influenza germs, rendering your dainty, lace-trimmed hanky as dangerous as any incendiary device. Carelessness on your part and suddenly your monogrammed handkerchief, harboring germs, could be turned into a weapon of bio-terrorism threatening you and your terror-stricken neighbors with the dread menace of infection.

Fear ran so deep that handkerchiefs were stigmatized as dangerous transmitters of the flu, and people frantically resorted to using pieces of linen in their stead, which were then subsequently burned.

health handkerchief vintage childrens book illustration 1950s

Although hankies eventually came back into favor, and Nana, like my mother, always carried an ironed and neatly folded hanky in her pocketbook, she would never dream of blowing her nose in one. Dabbing an eye at a three hanky movie maybe, but generally, handkerchiefs were rendered inoperable.

And if health wasn’t an incentive, vanity was. Kleenex promised the flapper it would keep her girlish figure. “Now I’m streamlined,’ boasted one young modern. “Carrying four or five hankies in my pocket during colds made my figure bumpy in the wrong places! Now I carry Kleenex and I’m in good shape again!”

Air Control

vintage childrens schoolbook illustration health fresh air

As head of tactical air control, Nana deployed the aerosol Lysol to fumigate the house of any biological agent, followed by the immediate opening up all the windows to let in plenty of frigid fresh air.

Sunshine and fresh air were the best deterrents to all illnesses Nana informed us.

Sick people she was convinced, needed air support, the more fresh air they get, the quicker they were likely to heal.

But only if you avoided drafts at all costs.

How you could distinguish between blasts of healthful, fresh Arctic air and dangerous drafts was beyond me. And don’t even think of raising the thermostat. Overheated homes were a recruitment center for pneumonia and TB.

Nana had definite ideas how the body worked and how it could be healed.

The open windows theory, heavily promoted in previous decades, went that people who breathe the same stale air over and overrun the risk of catching some dreadful disease, for along with the air, the lungs blow out tiny germs of sickness. These are too small to be seen and if there were plenty of fresh air in the room, they would rise up to the ceiling, float out the windows, be caught by the wind and carried high in the air where the hot sun would soon kill them.

If these germs can’t get out of the room they are apt to be drawn into the lungs of any person who isn’t well and there they are sure to grow and make that person very ill.

Her other strategy was a series of incendiary attacks. She would fight fire with fire.

Any remedy that made you perspire was good. You couldn’t possibly get well “until you worked up a good shvitz”, she believed, so a vaporizer was stationed next to Mom’s head, so hot it made the wallpaper perspire. Great puffs of mushrooming steam clouded the room so Mom couldn’t even be seen through the haze.

Fowl Ball

health cold chicken soup advertising

Jewish Penicillin

By themselves, these methods did not seem sufficient.

We were poised to unleash a powerful weapon to win the cold war- Jewish Penicillin.

Chicken soup, clear, sparkling, golden-colored, was Nana’s secret weapon. Antihistamine, decongestant, expectorant all in one, the golden broth would blast the virus to smithereens.

Chinese Wonton soup would be equally effective.


Copyright (©) 2020 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved






  1. Barbara Shenefield

    so great!! Thank you >


  2. I lived through that and didn’t remember it! As usual, an excellent narrative.


  3. Pierre Lagacé

    I was 8 in 1957 and I can’t remember it.


  4. Pingback: 8 Health Scares During the Cold War - Cold War

  5. JB

    I see what you did there, insinuating the sinus… Nicely put!


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