Spanish Flu 1918: “Looking Back”

The 1918 Spanish Flu was the most severe pandemic in recent history. It was called the “Spanish Flu,” not because it originated in Spain, but because this neutral nation freely reported the news of the flu while the countries involved in the war kept quiet about the severity and spread of the disease to keep up public morale and not reveal illness among the soldiers during wartime.

We now know the flu was caused by the H1N1 virus with genes of avian (bird) origin. First identified in military personnel in the spring of 1918, it spread quickly due to the close quarters and massive troop movements. This “first wave” was considered milder than the next two waves.

The Spanish flu spread worldwide during 1918-1919. In September 1918, the second wave emerged at military facilities in Boston. More than 100,000 Americans died during October alone. The third wave hit in early 1919 before the pandemic finally subsided in the summer of 1919.

The Spanish flu hit Little Rock’s Camp Pike, with a population of 52,000 men, in the fall of 1918. The infirmary was admitting up to 1,000 men a day. The camp was quarantined but still more than 500 civilian cases soon appeared in the Little Rock area. The disease spread to rural areas of Arkansas, where many deaths likely went unreported.

With 1,800 cases of influenza in the state, the Arkansas Board of Health put the state under quarantine in early October. Every school, church, moving picture theater and place of public assemblage was ordered closed. States across the nation also were under quarantine.

A few days later, Dr. J.S. Westerfield, the Faulkner County health officer, became a victim of Spanish influenza and had to take to his bed. Earlier, he said the number of new cases in Faulkner County was about the same. A few cases of pneumonia had developed but no deaths had yet occurred in Conway. At Hendrix College, where the epidemic had struck the hardest with about 200 cases, President Reynolds said the situation was well in hand.

In mid-October, a Little Rock paper reported that the banks, business houses and industries there were crippled because a greatest number of employees were sick. Large numbers of telephone operators were off-duty and the service is in bad condition. Thirty-seven employees of the post office were sick, and the mail was accumulating. Public gatherings of all sorts had been abandoned.

In Conway, it was reported that while the number of new cases of Spanish influenza were smaller than for the past few days, the epidemic continued to be serious in Conway. The disease had invaded the large majority of homes in the city, and in many cases entire families had been confined to their beds. There had been 500 cases in Conway with five deaths. The Red Cross provided face masks for anyone attending patients with influenza.

The flu affected the high and the low. Ex-Gov. George W. Donaghey was seriously ill at his home in Little Rock with an attack of influenza. Jo Frauenthal, prominent Conway merchant, didn’t get the flu but developed a mild case of pneumonia.

It is not known how many contracted the flue in the rural areas of Arkansas. These areas lacked medical care, especially in more isolated spots. Sometimes entire families died, too weak to nurse themselves much less get food and water. Country people, who usually help each other during illnesses, often did not due to fear or illness in their own homes.

By late October, Dr. C.W. Garrison, state health officer, issued an order allowing churches to hold one service for adults only, with the approval of the county health officer, Dr. Westerfield, however, thought it was best to keep Faulkner County congregations from meeting for one more Sunday at least.

The quarantine was finally lifted in Pulaski County on November 4, 1918 and the other county boards of health lifted restrictions as they saw fit in their areas. Public schools remained closed statewide and Arkansas children under 18 were confined to their homes for another month.

It is estimated that at least 50 million deaths occurred worldwide but about 675,000 died in the United States. In Arkansas, it ultimately killed more than 7,000 people although that number may not be entirely accurate.

Many in rural areas lacked the literary skills to record deaths and cemetery burials. Often people would be buried in unmarked graves in family burial grounds, so those deaths were undocumented. The H1N1 virus continued to circulate as a seasonal virus worldwide for the next 38 years.

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.