History’s Heroes

Amid the COVID-19 virus, the Missouri Historical Society is sharing the resilience of St. Louis by exploring the city’s past and documenting its present. 


Story By Liz Miller
Visuals By Spot Content Studio

Weeks before the pandemic arrived in St. Louis, people throughout the region worried about how it would ravage the community.

Reports from across the globe warned how rapidly the viral infectious disease could spread, and how deadly it had proven for even the healthiest among us. When the pandemic reached St. Louis, area public officials agreed that bold measures needed to be taken, including swiftly closing businesses, schools, churches, movie theaters and other institutions to slow the spread.

This was how St. Louis public health officials and elected officials responded to the Spanish Flu more than 100 years ago. When the worst of the pandemic was over, some 675,000 Americans had been lost to the Spanish Flu, with the worldwide death toll between 50 and 100 million. Due to the quick and bold action of St. Louis public health commissioner Dr. Max C. Starkloff and Mayor Henry Kiel, though, the St. Louis area was spared the kinds of staggering losses suffered in cities such as Philadelphia.

Amid the COVID-19 virus outbreak, reflecting on historical events including the 1918 pandemic shows how St. Louis overcame a major public health crisis once — and how the community is banding together to overcome the current threat today. That approach is at the heart of the Missouri Historical Society’s new #upliftingSTL social media campaign, which seeks to spotlight positive stories from St. Louis’ history during this time of fear and uncertainty.

Sowell and Missouri Historical Society staff want St. Louisans to find hope in how St. Louisans have responded during past pandemics.

Jody Sowell, Ph.D., managing director of strategic initiatives with the Missouri Historical Society, says that St. Louis’ response to the Spanish Flu more than a century ago is one such inspirational moment in the city’s long and storied history.

“It’s almost hard to realize how frightening this was in 1918,” Sowell says. “Many cities, most famously Philadelphia, were incredibly slow to take action against the pandemic. Some people thought it was overblown, some people said, ‘It’s just the flu; why are we reacting this way?’ St. Louis famously shut down its public facilities much sooner, put shelter-in-place regulations in place much sooner than other cities, and saw the results.”

The historical society’s #upliftingSTL campaign touches on events both big and small from the city’s past. Just a few of the major events explored in the series are the great fire in 1849 — which unfolded during a global cholera epidemic — tornadoes that bruised the city at various points in its history and the devastation caused by the flood of 1993.

Not all of the historical stories shared through the campaign are focused on sweeping or defining moments, though — some highlight the contributions of everyday heroes.

“There are a lot of heroes in St. Louis’ past, and that’s one thing we do through this series, we introduce you to those people who believe so much in what they’re fighting for that they’re often willing to risk their lives to make this a better place,” Sowell says. “You will find stories of people who ran into fires to rescue people. You will learn about how St. Louis responded to the Great Depression, and how places that you see in Forest Park, including the waterfalls and the Jewel Box, were part of the response to the Great Depression. You will learn also about stories of people who were fighting for equality, whether that’s racial equality or gender equality, facing those tough moments and not letting them defeat us.”

Today, examples of small yet meaningful acts of kindness and unity featured in the #upliftingSTL campaign range from children writing positive messages in colorful sidewalk chalk to inspire their neighbors, Sowell says, to two local health care workers who postponed their wedding to treat COVID-19 patients.

“ I am struck and inspired by both St. Louisans of the past and St. Louisans today, and all that they've done to to face incredible challenges and incredible odds.”
– Jody Sowell, Ph.D.

Through its new “Stories of the Pandemic” digital archive, the museum is cataloging the stories of how St. Louisans are responding today in order to capture this moment in time for posterity. People throughout the community are encouraged to share their stories of living through the COVID-19 virus with the museum for inclusion in the digital archive. Sowell describes the submissions received so far as “amazing snapshots of the history we’re living through today,” and plans to include them in exhibits in the future, when the time is right to reflect on the current pandemic.

“I think the stories that we’ve shared from the past and the stories that we’re recording today, what unites them is the amazing resiliency of this community and its people,” Sowell says. “These are amazing stories that help you realize that, yes, it’s difficult, what we’re going through right now. It’s incredibly tough to stay at home. It’s incredibly sad to lose a job or lose a loved one, but we will get through this.”

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