Echoes of Pandemics Past

Published:May 27, 2020 by Patti Miller

Volunteers with the Red Cross Motor Corps in October 1918 at the height of the influenza pandemic
(Image courtesy of Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division}

When Encyclopedia Virginia was approached two years ago about adding an entry on the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic in Virginia, director Peter Hedlund wasn’t sure it would be germane enough for our readership. But he figured it sounded interesting, so the entry was commissioned. That, as it turns out, was an incredibility farsighted decision, because now in the midst of the historic COVID-19 pandemic, you can turn to Encyclopedia Virginia to read about how Virginians coped with a similar situation almost exactly 100 years ago. 

If you’re anything like me, there’s a strange comfort in connecting with the people who survived cataclysms like the 1918 flu pandemic. Just the fact that people had similar experiences and survived is a reminder we aren’t alone in this, but part of a historic continuum, a story of loss and recovery that we’re just bit players in.

And for all our medical and scientific advances since 1918—even antibiotics were still a decade away—there’s an eerie similarity between our responses now and then. Thanks to EV Assistant Editor Miranda Bennett, you can take a dip into the primary documents linked to our 1918–1919 influenza pandemic entry to get a first-hand look at that epidemic from the people who lived it.

The epidemic first showed up in late summer of 1918, spreading like wildfire through the camps of soldiers mobilized for World War I. Many thought it portentous that the first case of influenza at Camp Lee in Petersburg was reported on Friday, the thirteenth of September. By October 2, the Big Stone Gap Post was advising people to “exercise the greatest care in the use of their handkerchiefs…abstain from putting their fingers in their mouths…[and] avoid crowded, ill ventilated places where many persons assemble.”

By October 9, U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue was recommending the closure of “all churches, schools, theaters and public institutions in every community,” to stop the spread, but in a particularly eerie parallel, lamented the fact that “[t]here is no way to put a nationwide closing order into effect.” By that time, there were an estimated 10,000 cases of flu in Richmond. Like today, medical students from the Medical College of Virginia volunteered their services and a local high school was turned into an emergency 500-bed hospital. By the middle of October, it was clear that the state would have to go on a wartime footing to fight the epidemic. As with World War I, it was women who were called on to mobilize on the home front, continuing their historic entry into the world outside of the home that had been accelerated by the war. 

Washington, D.C., socialite Isabel Anderson recalled that while there were “few things to be done by women” during the Spanish-American War in 1898, “there has been so much more in the Great War.” Anderson and her friends mobilized to create a Red Cross canteen to feed the soldiers who poured through Washington on trains destined for camps around the country, sometimes feeding ten to fifteen thousand men a day with sandwiches, pie, and steaming cups of coffee brewed on a portable “trailer kitchen,” a “giant affair, on wheels, [with] four great cauldrons, each holding forty gallons, and a bin at the rear carrying a day’s supply of wood.”

When the influenza pandemic hit, these same women found themselves rushing around Washington tending to sick war workers in the overcrowded capital, one finding “[s]even girls in a room…three in bed, one with pneumonia, no attention.” Likewise, in Big Stone Gap, the women of the Red Cross were mobilized to nurse the sick and feed those too weak or destitute to provide for themselves. The call to action was framed in explicitly patriotic terms. Women who “longed for the glamor and glory of service in France” could “show just how truly you desire to sacrifice yourself on the altar of your country” by volunteering “for public nursing in the crisis that is surely coming.”

By the third week of October, the nation was in the grip of the pandemic. There was a shortage of coal as flu ravaged the coalfields of Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, a shortage more serious than toilet paper, as railroad service was affected, hampering the movement of men and materials. Rich and poor alike shivered in the unusually cold fall as coal became scarce and prices skyrocketed.

It wasn’t just in cities that the flu upended life. On November 20, the Big Stone Gap Post reported severe “suffering and anguish” in the remote communities of Southwest Virginia, with “scores of sufferers in mountain cabins and shacks” as the flu spread through coal mines and lumber camps. There were reports of one family in which everyone was so sick that they “lived for several days on canned tomatoes alone,” as no one “had strength enough to go for food or assistance.” 

By late November the worst seemed to have passed, only for the flu to flare up again in early December as social distancing measures were relaxed. Debate raged about whether to keep local economies and schools closed to prevent a reoccurrence—whether “precaution is better than cure”—as the Clinch Valley News put it. Boosters of reopening the economy claimed that many cases of flu were just “bad colds,” it reported. “Whether the authorities have proceeded wisely or unwisely, remains to be seen. … Time will tell,” the Clinch Valley News concluded. Time will tell indeed.