Florida Children in 1918
Children across the South
donned masks to protect
themselves as they continued
to attend school through the
great epidemic.
(Florida State Archives)
The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 in the South
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - Great Flu Epidemic of 1918 in the South
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - Great Flu Epidemic of 1918 in the South
Casualty of the Flu Epidemic of 1918
Cemeteries across the South are filled with graves of
individuals who died from influenza in 1918. This
Florida mother is buried beside her child,
who died just one day earlier.
The Great Flu Disaster of 1918
It is difficult to conceive, but a massive flu
outbreak killed more Americans in 1918 than
died in World War I, which was raging that
same year.

In the South, the brutal toll of the 1918
influenza can be seen written in stone in
cemeteries in every community and state.
While modern health scientists call it a
"pandemic," which means an epidemic that
spreads rapidly through a large geographic
area, most Southerners remember it as the
Great Flu Epidemic of 1918.

It is estimated that somewhere between
500,000 and 650,000 Americans died in the
1918 outbreak. Exact numbers will never be
known.

In the South, where many people lived,
suffered and died in rural areas without
medical care, there is no way of knowing
exactly how many people contracted and died
of the flu that year. The toll, however, was
staggering.

In Alabama, for example, it is estimated that
as many as 26,000 people suffered from the
flu in a single week. In Birmingham alone,
135 deaths were reported in just the week of
October 26th. A public health nurse in
Florence reported making 900 house calls in
a single week and a U.S. Army medic
working in Alabama reported:

We worked like dogs from about seven in the
morning until the last patient of the day had
been checked in or out - usually about 10
o'clock that night. The men died like flies,
and several times we ran out of boxes to bury
them in, and had to put their bodies in cold
storage until more boxes were shipped in. It
was horrible.

In Georgia, public health officials reported
over 20,000 cases of influenza in October of
1918 with 514 deaths. The actual toll was
much higher, as rural doctors throughout the
state reported being overwhelmed with
patients and many others never made it to
town to seek medical care. In Quitman,
public officials went so far as to ban church
services.

The most stunning totals came from Virginia,
where 200,000 cases of flu were reported on
October 15, 1918. The death toll ran into the
tens of thousands. Another 139,000 cases
were reported the following year, with a death
toll estimated at 15,678.

Statistics from Tennessee and Kentucky
were equally staggering. In Memphis, 1,040
people died from the flu in 1918, while in
Nashville another 1,063 lost their lives. In
Louisville, the estimated death toll reached
2,357 in 1918 with another 837 dying in 1919.
The deaths continued at an alarming rate
into 1919 and barely a family in the South
escaped. In Florida, for example, every single
student and staff member of the Florida
Reform School (today's Dozier School) in
Marianna was reported ill and 12 died.

Massive death rates were reported in every
Southern state and modern researchers
often encounter multiple family members
who died in 1918 or 1919 as they research
their family genealogy.

In addition to its human toll, the great flu
epidemic devastated the economy of the
South. In Little Rock, Arkansas, for example,
businesses reported a year to year drop of
as much as 70% and one-third of the city's
grocery stores closed permanently. The
average business loss in the city was
reported to be $10,000 per day during the
height of the epidemic. In Memphis, the
telephone company had to limit calls to
emergencies only because more than 100
operators fell sick with the flu. In the mining
town of Coalfield, Tennessee, 98% of the
population contracted the flu.

An economic study of the results of the 1918
flu found that babies still in the wombs of
flu-stricken women suffered life-long effects
such as reduced educational achievements,
high rates of physical disability and reduced
lifetime earnings. These impacts led to
lifetimes of suffering for thousands of people
in the South.

If you are interested in reading more about
the great flu epidemic of 1918 and its impact
on the South,
please click here to visit the
U.S. Government's report for the Southeast
region.
Telephone Operators in 1918
As the photograph shows,
telephone operators also
wore masks, but so many fell
ill that some Southern phone
companies had to limit calls
to emergencies only.
(Florida State Archives)
Flu Poster from 1918
Health officials distributed
posters like this one across
the South in an effort to help
people avoid the flue.
(Library of Congress)
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Copyright 2011 by Dale Cox
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