The “Spanish Flu” Pandemic of 1918-1919: A Death in Paris

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

The influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, often referred to as the “Spanish flu,” was the greatest pandemic of the 20th Century.  It killed upwards of 50 million people worldwide, striking without regard to country or social status.  American soldiers in France and on their way home in packed ship died in droves.

Willard Straight

An earlier post discussed the influenza-related death of a prominent American socialite in Philadelphia.  Among the Americans serving overseas who fell victim to the pandemic was Willard D. Straight, a socially, politically, and intellectually connected mover and shaker in early Twentieth Century America.  A 1901 graduate of Cornell University, Straight had led a distinguished and varied career, largely focused on U.S. political and financial relations with China, in a short period of time.[i]  He worked for the Chinese Customs Union, part of the imperial Chinese government; as a press correspondent during the 1905 Russo-Japanese War; served as vice-consul and secretary of the U.S. legation in Korea; served as U.S. consul general in Mukden, China; worked for J.P. Morgan & Co.; founded, along with Dorothy Payne Whitney (his wife) and Herbert Croly, the political magazine The New Republic in 1914; worked for the American International Corporation; and served as an aide to General John J. Pershing during World War I.  He held the rank of Major.

On November 12, 1918, the day after the Armistice “ending” World War I, Straight was assigned to the nascent American Commission to Negotiate Peace then assembling in Paris to support the American team negotiating the formal peace treaty to end the war.  Another soldier assigned to the Commission was his friend Walter Lippmann, the future journalist and political commentator. 

In late November, Straight and Lippmann were among the millions who fell victim to the flu epidemic.  Lippmann recovered but Straight died from pneumonia, a complication of the flu, in Paris on December 1, 1918.  Lippmann was at his side when he died as was President Wilson’s personal physician, Admiral Cary Grayson, already in Paris, who attended to Straight.[ii]  After a service in the American Church of the Holy Trinity on Tuesday, December 3, he was buried in Suresnes American Cemetery. 

A different and more human portrait of Willard Straight emerges from the following list of his personal effects, something not usually found among the records.[iii]

Among Straight’s legacies is Willard Straight Hall, the main student union building at Cornell University.  It was funded by Dorothy Straight as her way of honoring a request in her husband’s will to help make Cornell “a more human place.”[iv]  Opened in November 1925, it was one of the first purpose-built student union buildings in the United States and remains in active use. 

[i] Straight was an architecture student at Cornell and helped to establish the annual architecture student event called “Dragon Day” which still takes place.

[ii] Ronald Steel, WALTER LIPPMANN AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1980), p. 151.

[iii] See file “184.1-Straight, Willard” (NAID 26650584) in the “General Correspondence,” RG 256: Records of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace.  Available on National Archives Microfilm Publication M820: General Records of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace, 1918-1931 and online through the National Archives Catalog.  These images come from the online resource.  The photograph came from WILLARD STRAIGHT by Herbert Croly (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1924).

[iv] Morris Bishop, A HISTORY OF CORNELL (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1962) p. 455

2 thoughts on “The “Spanish Flu” Pandemic of 1918-1919: A Death in Paris

  1. Great post, David! Astonishing to see his list of possessions, including 11 boxes of cigars. Sounds like he left quite a legacy. Did you celebrate “Dragon Day” when you were there?

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