By February of 1920, news of the president’s stroke caused by Spanish Flu began to be reported in the press. Nevertheless, the full details of Woodrow Wilson’s disability, and his wife’s management of his affairs, were not entirely understood by the American public at the time.
But Wilson, of course, was not dead and not willing to resign because of inability. As a result, Vice President Thomas Marshall refused to assume the presidency unless the Congress passed a resolution that the office was, in fact, vacant, and only after Mrs. Wilson and Dr. Grayson certified in writing, using the language spelled out by the Constitution, of the president’s “inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office.” Such resolutions never came.
In fact, it was not until 1967 that the 25th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, which provides a more specific means of transfer of power when a president dies or is disabled. Parenthetically, many presidential health scholars continue to argue that even the 25th Amendment is not clear enough in terms of presidential succession and needs revision, especially in the face of 21st century medicine and the increased chances of surviving major illnesses with severe and impairing disabilities.
What happened with Woodrow Wilson is definitely worth a study. With Wilson unwilling to step back, his wife became heavily involved in his affairs; it must be stated that she was explicit to say she only did his bidding. There may have been more of a feminine touch in the Presidency than the general public understood.
Over the last century, historians have continued to dig into the proceedings of the Wilson administration and it has become clear that Edith Wilson acted as much more than a mere “steward.” She was, essentially, the nation’s chief executive until her husband’s second term concluded in March of 1921. Nearly three years later, Woodrow Wilson died in his Washington, D.C., home, at 2340 S Street, NW, at 11:15 AM on Sunday, Feb. 3, 1924.
Woodrow Wilson’s Administration kept everything a secret. The public knew very little.
While last century’s pandemic — it was often called the “Spanish flu,” even though it didn’t originate in Spain — had some similarities to the coronavirus, there were some differences.
With the flu, people had horrific symptoms like bleeding from the nose, mouth, eyes and ears. The 1918 virus also mostly killed the young, which left researchers puzzled. The mortality rate was especially high in people between ages 20-40 and in children under 5.
This will sound familiar. In 1918, public health authorities strongly recommended that people wear face masks to stop the spread of the virus. They also issued social distancing guidelines and urged people to practice proper hygiene.
But back then, Americans who did not wear masks were not making a political statement.
“Lots of people grumbled about wearing masks, or even refused to do so, but they weren’t doing so because of a political stance or partisan allegiance,” said Alexander Navarro, assistant director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan.
With the country at war, wearing masks was seen as patriotic. People who didn’t wear them were shamed in public service announcements and news headlines for their defiance.
“Lots of elected officials as well as public health officers were telling people to wear masks as part of their civic duty,” Navarro told CNN. “They were trying to tap into this idea that if you couldn’t be over there fighting alongside our boys overseas, you could be doing your part here on the home front.”
The flu faded in 1920 after killing more than 50 million people worldwide. There has been no flu as lethal before or since.