Grad student uncovers story of a group of women who cared for Philadelphians during 1918 flu pandemic

Nurses care for victims of a Spanish influenza epidemic outdoors amidst canvas tents during an outdoor fresh air cure, Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1918.
Photo credit Hulton Archive/Getty Images
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A Devon graduate student says family tree research for a book she was compiling led her to uncover the role of Catholic religious sisters in helping Philadelphia cope with the last pandemic to hit the region back in 1918. 

Kiley Bense says she was researching her paternal grandmother’s life when she found a publication recounting the role of the sisters during the flu pandemic that killed thousands.

Bense says the 50-page oral history based on interviews with the sisters was put out by the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia. 

“They would start at 7 or 8 o’clock at night and they would work until 7 a.m. the next morning. That they would get on these street cars that were empty because everybody was sheltering in place the way that we are right now. And then they would get to these hospitals where there just were people all around them who were dying and desperately, desperately sick,” Bense explained. 

She says there wasn’t much the sisters could do other than bring water and medicine to the sick, as well as feed and bathe them. 

“But, it was an absolutely horrific situation to wander into particularly if you don’t have a background in nursing. I think it must have been just shocking,” she said. 

Bense says she sees the same spirit of self-sacrifice in the nurses, doctors and other medical professionals of today who are trying to save lives during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I admire them so, so deeply and I know that must take an enormous amount of courage and strength to wake up and devote your life and time and put your own life and your family’s life at risk to help others,” she said.