Throwback Thursday – Remembering the 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic
“October 11, 1918
My dear Mr. Varney,
The epidemic of influenza is very bad in Bowling Green—the worst siege of sickness this community has ever had…Unless the condition improves at this place, it will be utterly impossible for me to leave as we have a number of students who are desperately ill at this time and I must stay right on the hill, doing all I can.”
-Henry Hardin Cherry
That excerpt was from a letter written by WKU President Cherry during the infamous Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. He was supposed to be a featured speaker at a conference in Pikeville and sent his regrets. Much like the national situation right now, all schools, churches, and entertainment venues were shut down in an effort to prevent the spread.
The Spanish flu killed 15 thousand people in Kentucky and sickened about 300 thousand. According to historian Nancy Baird, the flu hit Europe and Asia simultaneously in the final months of World War I. The first cases recorded in Kentucky were at military camp Taylor in Louisville in September 1918. By mid-October the epidemic swept the entire state.
Much like the Covid-19 pandemic modern reaction, there was a shortage of medical personnel and equipment. Companies created their own remedies advertising them as relief, with everything from alcohols to chemical sprays. The Kentucky Board of Health issued advice for prevention. U.S. Congress spent $1 million on development for a vaccine.
By the end of November, the war in Europe was over and Americans were coming home. Most public schools remained closed for spring, and no one under 16 was allowed in theaters, amusement parks, or anywhere else that encourages public gathering. There were sporadic flu cases reported in the winter and early spring of 1919, but none as bad as the October peak.
A century later, we’re in the midst of a pandemic. We will get through this together.