Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Great Flu Epidemic of 1918

With all the news coverage and growing concern about the swine flu outbreak, numerous mentions are being made of the horrible influenza epidemic of 1918.

Sometimes called the Spanish Flu pandemic, the outbreak is best remembered as the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918. Although exact totals will never be known, it is estimated that from 500,000 to 650,000 Americans died in the outbreak.

At cemeteries throughout Florida, rows of graves bearing the ominous date "1918" can be found. The headstone shown here is in the small Oak Grove Cemetery in Jackson County, Florida. The woman's unfortunate infant is buried beside her and another grave dating from 1918 is nearby.

The 1918 flu first appeared in Florida in Key West on September 27th of that year. Less than one week later public health officials declared epidemics in both Key West and Pensacola. By the end of the second week of October, 158 people had died in Florida and in Key West alone 800 people were sick.

Things got much worse. By October 17th, 234 people had died in Jacksonville alone. With a population of 91,000, the city was the largest in the state at the time.

At the University of Florida in Gainesville, the flu swept through the student body. Surviving reports indicate that both students and professors died and hundreds of students fell ill. The auditorium of the Agriculture Building was converted into a makeshift hospital where healthy students assisted Red Cross volunteers in caring for the sick.

In St. Johns County, where the principal city was St. Augustine, the Council of Defense banned all public meetings including church services.

Across the state, people began wearing masks to try to protect themselves from the sickness. In rural areas, people sickened and died often with no medical help. The total death toll in the state will never be known. Studies have since revealed that babies still in the womb at the time of the epidemic experienced significant problems later in life. They experienced learning disabilities at an abnormally high rate, suffered physical disability at a higher than normal rate and earned far less in their lives than those not exposed to the flu.

If you are interested in learning more about the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918 and how it impacted the South, please visit

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