Across America in the fall of 1918 the Spanish influenza-and the fear of it-was everywhere. The flu’s name came from the early affliction and large mortalities in Spain where it allegedly killed 8 million in May that year. No one knows exactly how many people died during the 1918-1919 global influenza pandemic, but estimates place 675,000 Americans among the dead: more than died during World War I!
Many physicians succumbed to the flu themselves. Shortages of essential personnel of all types often compounded the crisis even further. A lack of sanitation workers in cities allowed sewage to accumulate in the streets, raising concerns about other diseases. Emergency hospitals could not be opened to accommodate the growing numbers of patients because they could not be staffed.
Most patients were isolated in their homes and treated there, if they could get medical attention at all. Gauze masks started sprouting on faces everywhere, though wearing masks does little to prevent the spread of influenza. Those sickened were often left to fend for themselves—neighbors refused to come to the aid of neighbors for fear that they too would be struck.
ALABAMA: It first appeared in late September 1918 in Florence, in the northwest corner of the state. Just three weeks later, over 25,000 cases of influenza in the state had been reported to the U.S. Public Health Service. Following a common practice in many communities, Alabama doctors often wrapped the wheels of their horse drawn carts with cotton so people would not become alarmed when they heard the cart leaving during the night. During the last two weeks of October, more than 37,000 cases of the flu erupted in Alabama. People around the state died by the hundreds.
GEORGIA: It probably arrived during the first week of October 1918, and then spread like a wildfire throughout the state. In just three weeks, from October 19th to November 9th, there were more than 20,000 cases and more than 500 deaths. State officials filed their first report on October 19. On that date, they claimed that the state had 6,304 cases with 68 deaths. The real number of cases and deaths was probably much higher. The next week saw an increase in the number of cases: 9,637 cases and 308 deaths were reported. The following week, the week ending November 2nd, saw a tapering off of the epidemic with only 4,287 cases and 138 deaths being reported.
SOUTH CAROLINA: By early October, the disease had spread into the upper reaches of the state. Eucapine, Vick’s VapoRub, and other patent medicines became popular and were touted as cures. South Carolina’s governor even permitted the use of then-illegal alcohol because doctors were advocating its use as a remedy and nothing else seemed to be working. Alcohol didn’t work either. Home remedies were widespread. Onion plasters, the eating of raw onions, and even drinking hot lemonade to induce perspiration were recommended. None of these treatments were effective.
TENNESSEE: On October 15th, there were 27 deaths in Knoxville. Dr. E.L. Bishop, of Tennessee’s State Board of Health, offered his advice by condemning “promiscuous kissing …especially that of the nonessential variety.” He said, “[a] kiss of infection…may truly be the kiss of death.” On October 27th, “conditions were better in mining camps generally and…reports from rural communities in a few counties indicated that the disease is not yet prevalent at these points.” In the last two weeks of October, when the pandemic was at its peak, nearly 11,000 Tennesseans were struck. More than 650 fell. Writing in a medical journal, one Tennessee physician summed up the situation in saying “The man who dug his neighbor’s grave today might head the funeral procession next week. No telling who would be next.”
NORTH CAROLINA: Dr. W.S. Rankin of North Carolina’s State Board of Health refused to approve the use of rum in emergency hospitals due to lack of evidence that it was effective against influenza. Instead the Board called for treatments of “sunshine and open air.” Calomel, a purgative (and insecticide), was also prescribed. By the time the pandemic passed, at least 13,000 North Carolinians had perished. The state’s many mill towns suffered tremendous losses from the pandemic. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, and poverty all served to exacerbate the number of cases and deaths in these regions.
to be continued…