Chills? Fever? Cold or Flu? I never really gave it much thought. Chicken soup and bed rest seems to be the remedy for whatever ails. However, while watching season 2 of Downton Abbey in the marathon to prepare for the upcoming season 5 starting in the US in January, I got curious about the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. As quickly as it takes to serve the first course at dinner, three people in the Downton Abbey household come down with symptoms.
In the early days of the last century, people died of flu, pneumonia, childbirth and in other scenarios that we don't worry about much anymore. This I knew. What I didn't know is how many people were affected by the pandemic of 1918 and 1919. More than 50 million people were killed. To put that in perspective, it was five times more deaths than the military personnel deaths (both Allies and enemies) of WWI fought from 1914 to 1918.
Got your attention now?
It's possible the casualties from the pandemic were susceptible because of the war, with weakened immune systems due to stress and malnurishment. It could have spread so quickly due to large concentrations of soldiers in Europe returning home, and home could be on other continents. However these theories are just theories. The flu attacked everyone, even the previously healthy young adults. And some speculate the flu started in the US, not Europe or Asia.
In Tennessee, 8000 people died. In fact, Nashville’s epidemic was one of the most severe in the country. Symtoms started appearing in September of 1918, and in October of 1918 nearly 500 people died from the flu in Nashville alone. The Nashville Banner reported that theaters, carnivals, and other "non-essential entertainment venues" must close. Soon schools and church "prayer meetings" were cancelled.
According to Bill Carey in his article Influenza Epidemic of 1918,
In Nashville, for instance, the epidemic prompted civic leaders to start a new hospital in December 1918. That facility, originally Protestant Hospital and later named Baptist Hospital, is today a part of the St. Thomas system.
Also, shortly after the epidemic, the Carnegie Foundation increased its donation to the new Vanderbilt Medical School from $1million to $5million. It was largely because of this money that Vanderbilt opened the first combined medical school and hospital in the US.
More information on this overlooked historical event may be found at The Great Pandemic site. Another fascinating site is the American Influenza Epidemic digital collection of articles by city on the flu.
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