Exhibit – The 1918 Influenza Epidemic

In order to maintain morale, early reports of what was being called the Spanish flu were not reported in the beginning.   However, countries such as Germany, Britain, France and the United States began to see cases of this flu epidemic that was breaking out and causing several deaths.  Because WWI was still raging in Europe and troops were mobile, influenza spread quickly around the world.  The flu hit in three waves in 1918 and into early 1919, with the second the most deadly.  In the United States, eighteen cases of influenza was reported in Kansas on March 31, 1918, resulting in three deaths.  Doctors in Haskell County, Kansas began to notice a rash of server influenza cases.  Kansas became known to be ground zero for the 1918 epidemic in the United States.

The doctors of Haskell County quickly realized that unusualness of this outbreak of influenza.  Doctors were not required to report influenza as a threat, so reporting to the state or federal authorities were not necessary; however, as mentioned before due to the quick spread of this strain of virus and how it quickly became a killer, they showed a concern for the residents of their county.

What has become known as the 1918 Influenza Epidemic or the 1918 Flu Pandemic occurred from approximately January 1918 to December 1920.  This epidemic was unlike any other outbreak of influenza which caused death predominately in young children, the elderly and those who were already sickly; however, the 1918 epidemic immobilized and killed strong healthy young adults in a matter of days.

Even with the early report of the outbreak in Kansas, outbreaks rapidly spread in the month of August where the first official case was reported in Boston, Massachusetts on August 27th.  It began as several sailors at the Commonwealth Pier were said to have influenza and then the next day eight new cases were reported; followed by another fifty-eight cases just three days later.  Within two weeks over two thousand military officers had influenza in Boston.  On September 3rd, Boston City Hospital admitted its first civilian influenza patient and by September 8th this outbreak had reached Camp Devens.

Physicians from Camp Devens described the results of the autopsies as unique and characterized by an intense congestion and hemorrhage of the lungs.  William Henry Welch from Johns Hopkins and Rufus Cole from Rockefeller Institute conducted several of these autopsies; during one of the autopsies, Welch turned away from the blue, swollen lungs that were wet, foamy, and shapeless surface, nervously stating, “this much be some new kind of infection or plague.”

The cases began to spread to other states and the statistics rose beyond what anyone could imagine.  The Medical Department increased its capacities in the Army Hospitals from 9,500 to 120,000 in order to care for the growing cases of influenza.  The Medical Department had 30,500 medical officers and 21,500 nurses.  Of the 30,500 medical officers, 350 were African-American, but there were not black nurses until December 1918.  Due to segregation, African-American doctors and nurses were only able to treat their African-American counterparts; however, on some military posts on, the Medical Department dropped its prohibition of African-American nurses so that they could offer care to white soldiers and patients.

Influenza probably reached Arkansas in late September, but by early October, state officials were seeing the impact of this outbreak on the state.  The epidemic placed a hardship on the state due to its severity because most Arkansans lived in rural areas and were unable to obtain proper medical attention.  Officials often downplayed the threat due to not wanting to cause a panic among the people, but in October, the Arkansas Board of Health was forced to put the state under quarantine.  This quarantine was in effect until November 4th, but even after it was lifted public schools remained closed and children were confined to their homes until December.

A high number of African-American citizens in Arkansas were severely affected due to segregation laws of the times.  African-American’s were only allowed to be treated by African-American caregivers and doctors.  Being there was a limited number of African-American doctors meant that many suffered without proper care or any medical care at all.

Arkansas was the home of two newly built Army Posts; Camp Pike located in Pulaski County and Camp Eberts located 1.4 miles northwest of Lonoke.  Both training facilities were established in 1917 as a result of the United States’ entry into the Great War, which we all now known as World War I.  The population of these camps were one and half times the size of Little Rock when the Pandemic struck and both camps were overwhelmed by this epidemic.

There were 52,000 men at Camp Pike.  The camp was sealed and quarantined, and the commandant ordered that the names of the dead not be released to the press, so that a panic would not breakout.  The Post hospital was overflowing with soldiers who were sick with the “Spanish Flu.”  In early September, the Camp Pike hospital saw an average of 17 new patients a day with acute bronchitis.  Then the number soared.   During an eight day stretch beginning on September 20, the Post hospital began admitting up to 1,000 men a day, which was more than the 2,000 bed facility could handle. These emergency conditions required 1,400 beds to be placed in a cleared out barrack and hanger.  Plus, the make matters worse, 62 of the 240 medical personal contracted influenza as well.  By the end of September, the hospital on Post had 797 patients.  By the end of the epidemic, Camp Pike and Camp Eberts lost 466 soldiers.  During the period of September 20 to October 19, there were 11,899 cases of influenza reported.

Camp Funston a U.S. Army training camp located on Fort Riley, Kansas was the only military post in the United States was hit worse than Camp Pike.  The first cases were found at Camp Funston in March 1918, but by late October it was reported that 26,800 cases of influenza had been reported.  Although the epidemic eased by January 1919, it still continued until the summer months in many of the states.

This epidemic infected 500 million people around the world which stretched as far as remote areas of the Pacific islands and the Artic.  It is estimated that approximately 21.5 million people died during this pandemic according to data obtained by researchers in the 1920s; however, more recent data reveals that these estimations are low and are closer to 30 and 50 million affected from around the world.  In these totals it is also estimated that approximately 650,000 to 675,000 Americans lost their lives; which means that more Americans died from influenza then dies in World War I.

Share This