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The 1918 influenza pandemic and the Codman family

Apr 24, 2020

In an effort to better understand our current situation, people have been looking back to the 1918 influenza pandemic. Codman Estate Guide Camille Arbogast discovered the story of how the Codmans of Lincoln, Massachusetts, had a personal connection to this epidemic. In September 1918, during the Boston-area surge, the flu struck the youngest daughter, thirty-five-year-old Dorothy.

Dorothy, born in France, passionately supported the Allied cause during World War I. When Dorothy was not writing letters to an adopted French solider, or knitting socks to send to the front, she was working in Boston at the New England headquarters of the American Fund for French Wounded. While there she rolled bandages and packed crates of medical supplies to be sent overseas.

A page from Dorothy Codman’s American Fund for French Wounded scrapbook. Dorothy is identified in the background of a photo which ran in the Boston Herald.
A page from Dorothy Codman’s American Fund for French Wounded scrapbook. Dorothy is identified in the background of a photo.

In late September, Dorothy developed a cough and a fever of 102. When she was still sick a few days later, the doctor was called. He confirmed her family’s fear: Dorothy had influenza.

Earlier in September, Dorothy’s mother, Sally Codman, had noted there was “an epidemic of Influenza in Boston.” It reminded her of an earlier outbreak in 1889: a world-wide pandemic known as the “Russian flu,” in which the first American causalities were in Massachusetts. During one of the waves of that epidemic, Sally shared a Paris doctor’s flu preventative: “inhale cologne water sniff it up through your nose & also with your mouth—do this several times a day.” Her children were skeptical. Her middle son, Tom, was “very obstinate,” refusing to try it.

Sally did not suggest inhaling cologne to ward off the influenza of 1918. Camp Devens, just about thirty miles from the Codman’s home in Lincoln, Massachusetts, was an early hotspot. Soon the illness was reported on Navy receiving ships at Boston’s Commonwealth Pier, then among the civilians of greater Boston. “Isn’t this epidemic too horrible,” Sally wrote to her oldest son, Ogden Codman Jr., “… I remember that first Influenza in 1889 … that was nothing in comparison to this.” What she read in the newspapers was frightening. To her, the sickness seemed “like the plague.”

Sally and Marie-Reine help

Sally served as Dorothy’s nurse. She was aided by Marie-Reine Lucas, who had joined the household staff as Dorothy’s nursemaid when Dorothy was a year old. By 1918 it was known that the illness was spread by coughing. Dorothy did all she could not to cough when others were near her.

Dorothy Codman
Young Dorothy Codman

Five days after diagnosis, Dorothy’s fever had broken. For a time, she was “very weak & out of spirits,” her mother wrote of one day when Dorothy “crawled” downstairs so she could sit in the fresh air. Dorothy was lucky. She had what was described as a “light case.” The influenza did not attack her lungs—what made the disease so deadly for so many. She made a full recovery and by late October was entirely well.

Learn more

Read more about the Codman family and their house in Lincoln, Mass.

Explore the Codman family papers in Historic New England’s collection.