When No One Was Safe 

A killer disease once ravaged Nashville—and it dwarfed the anthrax scare

A killer disease once ravaged Nashville—and it dwarfed the anthrax scare

By Bill Carey

Even if the anthrax situation gets worse, the scare is a bit of a paper tiger. It’s not contagious and is a very remote threat to most Americans. Not only that, it’s treatable. That’s in stark contrast to the actual epidemic Americans had to deal with 83 years ago.

In the fall of 1918, one in three Nashville residents contracted influenza, commonly known as the flu. One in 270 residents died from it—579 people at a time when Nashville had a population of about 155,000. At least 20 million people died worldwide.

In Nashville, virtually every aspect of life came to a dramatic halt. Hospitals were so crowded that they turned away thousands of patients. Church was canceled for a month, and many sanctuaries were converted to wards for the dying. Schools, movie theaters, public meetings and sporting events were called off for weeks. Undertakers were so busy that they ran out of coffins.

One of the characteristics of the 1918 flu virus was the indiscriminate nature of its victims. Previous epidemics in Nashville were far more likely to attack the very old and the very young than grown children, young adults and the middle-aged. Not in 1918. In fact, over 50 percent of the people killed in the epidemic were between 20 and 50 years old, according to articles later published by the Journal of the Tennessee Medical Association.

Previous epidemics also were more likely to kill the poor than the rich. But in 1918, the affluent were almost as likely to die from influenza as the poor. “It was not uncommon to see the white casket trimmed in velvet going into the cemetery along with the plain, cheap coffin of wood,” an Oliver Springs, Tenn., physician named J.J. Waller later wrote.

Many physicians also were astounded by how fast the virus immobilized its victims. People who left work on Friday feeling fine were dead by Monday. A woman who came to visit her daughter at Belmont College caught the virus and died on the trip. A Nashville physician named T. G. Pollard told what was then called the Nashville Tennessean years later that he found “young mothers dead with their babies still nursing”and “infants dead with their mothers too sick to know it.” Several physicians and nurses perished in their brave attempts to treat the sick.

In this environment, it’s easy to understand why everyone was paranoid. John Lentz, the city’s health director at the time, later said that during the epidemic, “you could end a long friendship merely by sneezing at someone.” Looking for someone or something to blame, many citizens spoke in favor of a local ordinance to ban spitting.

Despite the severity of the pestilence, the local news media actually downplayed the situation, presumably to prevent panic. In fact, a review of every single issue of the Nashville Tennessean between Oct. 1 and Nov. 15, 1918, is revealing in several regards. Notable was the lack of locally generated articles about the epidemic and the prevalence of stories claiming the flu was not nearly as bad as “rumors” in Nashville claimed.

An Oct. 5, 1918, Nashville Tennessean article described the flu strain here as “mild”and said that the influenza situation in Old Hickory, where a massive federal gunpowder plant was under construction, had “materially improved.” A few days later, the paper failed to report that people were dying so fast in Old Hickory that the bodies were being hauled away en masse. It was later reported in The New York Times after a 1924 Department of Justice investigation into the cost of the plant’s construction. “They piled them in, six, seven, or 10 in the ambulance, and charged [the federal government] $20 for each body,” a Department of Justice accountant named George Storck later testified.

The other notable aspect of newspaper coverage—and this is ironic, given the downplaying of local influenza stories—was the number of articles detailing the severity of the disease elsewhere. A small Oct. 5 news story reported that 42 of the 45 pupils at a school in nearby Bowling Green, Ky., were ill. Four days later, the paper reported that several Southern cities had canceled all public functions because of the contagious illness. On Oct. 13, 1918, the Nashville Tennessean reported that the day before, 18 people died in Memphis, 12 in Birmingham, 25 in Huntsville and 24 in Ft. Oglethorpe, Ga. But the paper didn’t report how many died in Nashville. (City records would later report that number as 24.)

The influenza epidemic had a major impact on American medicine. During the decade afterward, the Carnegie Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation (which went by the name General Education Board at that time) gave millions of dollars to improve hospitals and medical schools. One of the main recipients of that philanthropy was the Vanderbilt Medical School.

The epidemic had the long-term effect of making people live in great fear of and respect for diseases, a trait that Americans lost several decades ago. “The great flu epidemic of 1918 killed 500,000 Americans,” a Nashville doctor said years later. “But it did something more. It scared the bejeebers out of three generations of us.”

Today, there aren’t very many people left who were alive in 1918. But those who were certainly haven’t forgotten. “I remember it well, because I had the flu, and I was afraid I was going to die,” says Wilbur Creighton Jr., who was 12 years old at the time. “I had a nurse, and she took care of me, and I don’t think I would have lived if it weren’t for her.”

Today, there aren’t very many people left who were alive in 1918. But those who were certainly haven’t forgotten. “I remember it well, because I had the flu, and I was afraid I was going to die,” says Wilbur Creighton Jr., who was 12 years old at the time. “I had a nurse, and she took care of me, and I don’t think I would have lived if it weren’t for her.”

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