by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As we are in our seventh week of stay-at-home orders in California to reduce the spread and “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 cases, we are all looking forward to what the near-future holds in terms of loosening restrictions and gradually being able to resume some of the “normal” functions of everyday life.
In our age of common vaccinations and extraordinarily low incidences of what were once common diseases, we’ve become accustomed to living generally free of a host of infections that caused enormous mortality rates not all that long ago in term of human history.
Measles, rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis, the mumps and diphtheria were all bacterial or viral diseases that ravaged humans, particularly young children, and, in this country, all were virtually eradicated thanks to the general use of vaccinations. Recent controversies over the practice are reminders of just how fortunate our society has been in keeping these maladies at bay for so long.
Now with the coronavirus pandemic, we are confronted with the problem of having a virus with which no one has an immunity and for which a vaccine will not be available until likely near the end of next year. With a lack of testing and contact tracing, the best hope for most of us of keeping the disease at bay for most people has been living under stay-at-home orders.
Today’s historic artifacts from the Museum’s collection deal with a situation nearly a century ago that was not at all uncommon when highly infectious disorders could easily lead to quarantines. In this case, a pair of Temple family letters concern such an instance in the face of an outbreak of diphtheria, a bacterial infection spread by respiratory droplets emitted from coughing and sneezing, a transmission much like that of COVID-19.
Unlike her older brother, Thomas, Agnes Temple, the only surviving daughter (another, Mercedes, died at the age of two weeks) of Walter P. Temple and Laura Gonzalez, was not a regular letter writer. So, it is notable that she penned surviving letters, on expensive high-quality note paper with an impressive monogram of AET (her middle name was Evelyn) to both her father and brother on this day in 1923.
She was finishing her sophomore year of high school at St. Mary’s Academy, a Roman Catholic private school for girls at Slauson Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles, and had some news for the two of them. Thomas was in his second semester of college and his first at the University of Santa Clara, where he completed the high school preparatory program before attending the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. After Laura Temple died of cancer at the end of 1922, Thomas decided he did not want to return to Cal Tech and went north to resume his studies. Agnes’ letter told him:
I know you will be surprised to hear this. We are in quarantine for Diptheria. Can you imagine? Of course, it is not any thing serious but just the same it pays to be careful. One of the small girls [likely an elementary level student] got it and we are suffering for it.
Agnes went on to tell her brother that students were not allowed inside campus buildings and that “we study and have classes out in the study courts.” Moreover, the regular schedule of classes was set aside “but we do enough so as not to waste too much time.”
She then told Thomas that some of the family “were to come out to see me to-day [6 May was a Sunday that year] but considering all circumstances they couldn’t very well [make the trip].” Agnes added that “Tootsie drove coming back from the ranch last Wednesday and she can handle the wheel pretty well.” “Tootsie” was Loretta Duarte, a first cousin once removed of Agnes and Thomas as their father and her grandmother, Margarita Temple Rowland, were siblings.
The ranch was the Homestead and Agnes told Thomas,
she and I got to work and cleaned up the [mausoleum in El Campo Santo Cemetery] at Puente, and we fixed up the place with fresh flowers. We had mother’s place looking beautiful. I hope they keep the place clean and not let it go like it was, it was a perfect disgrace.
In her missive to her father, Agnes wrote “I guess that you were very much surprised when Tootsie told you that we were in quarantine. I do not believe that there is any danger of us getting it (diphtheria.) Of course, it pays to be careful.” She asked “how is everybody at home” and whether “Tootsie [has] taken you to the ranch” from the Temple family home at Alhambra, which they soon sold (it became and remains the rectory for a Methodist Church built on the property) “since the last time I was there.”
Agnes then joked that her cousin “will have us at Puente [buried at the cemetery] if she keeps on running into the curbs like she did the last time.” She closed with the note that she was enclosing “my boarders report” from school and asked her father, “what do you think of it?” She wryly concluded, “It could be worse.” The report, however, does not appear to have survived the ravages of time. While she signed off to her father with her given first name, she used one of her nicknames, “Nin,” in concluding her missive to Thomas.
These letters were not as lengthy or detailed as those Thomas sent faithfully to his parents and then to his father every week, but the reference to Agnes’ being held in quarantine with her fellow students at St. Mary’s is a timely one.
A diphtheria vaccine finally became commonly available and utilized by the late 1940s and, along with those developed for other communicable diseases, many of us have taken for granted the immense benefits these have had for our society. These letters are a reminder of the fact that the risk of catching highly contagious diseases was still quite high and it was only four years after the so-called “Spanish Flu” pandemic that ravaged the world in 1918 and 1919, causing tens of millions of deaths, including some 675,000 in the United States. The current COVID-19 crisis is the worst pandemic since then and Agnes’ words ring somewhat familiar with respect to the quarantine she faced.