East Tennessee History: The Spanish Flu

Published 12:54 pm Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The year was 1918, and WWI, “the war to end all wars,” was coming to an end. Some of the American soldiers who had been sent to the killing fields of France found themselves at a base in France during the early months of 1918. This base was a little unusual because it kept poultry for the soldiers to have fresh chicken and other fowl to eat from time to time.
A few of the soldiers came down with flu-like symptoms and had to be hospitalized. Some of these soldiers died. Others were also hospitalized with the same symptoms.  Many of these also died.
The months past and the war ended on the eleventh month, eleventh day and the eleventh hour in 1918. The world rejoiced and our “dough boys” came home.
The soldiers came home to ticker-tape parades and celebrations in almost every community.
Then the deaths started.
People everywhere were being hospitalized with flu-like symptoms, and many of them were dying. People began talking about a new, more deadly strain of the flu.
This strain of the flu was affecting the youngest and weakest of society the most. First it was the elderly; then it was the children. Once this virus got in a family, often it would wipe out every child in the family.
Today, you can walk among the gravestones that date back to 1918 or 1919 and see grave markers that document the deaths of three or four members of a family. Children three, four and five years old were buried next to each other telling the world of a pandemic that touched almost every household.
This virus was a true pandemic. It reached almost every country in the world and left death in its wake. It has been estimated that 50 million people worldwide caught and died from this virus and that 500,000 of them were Americans. In fact, more people died from this virus than were killed in WWI.
Many scientists believe this virus was a type of bird flu that was easily transmitted from human to human. It lasted for almost two years and started in January 1918 and lasted through December 1919. Its death toil humbled an entire worldwide population.
As I write this, the worldwide death toil for the coronavirus pandemic stands at just over 100,000 people. In America, we have lost just over 33,000 people.
We study history so that we can learn from it and from our mistakes of the past, but we also study history to see the people we really are.
The flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919 taught this nation that we can get through these things and become a better nation because of it.
The coronavirus is teaching us that we do not have to have so many possessions in our lives. It is teaching us patients, humbleness and the values many of us have forgotten. Those values include our abilities to overcome almost anything if we work together and help each other.
Our present pandemic will pass, just as all of the recessions, depressions and pandemics in our history. When it does all come to an end and we can get out of our homes again, let’s start over being better humans, being better people, and being better Americans. Let’s all learn from this experience and vow to never take our freedoms and each other for granted again.

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