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A look back at influenza

Prior to the current situation, the most recent instance of a pandemic confronting Alabama and the nation was the Spanish flu crisis, which occurred a little more than a century ago, in 1918.  

The full brunt of the coronavirus is yet to be felt.   

The previous pandemic left whole families in its deadly wake, taking the lives of more people than the Great War (World War I) then in progress. It is estimated that more than 16 million people lost their lives during the war, while 20-50 million died as a result of the Spanish flu.  

According to the National Archives, the 1918 pandemic was the deadliest illness catastrophe in recorded human history. 

Public health historians tell us the first outbreak of the flu occurred at an Army camp in Kansas in March 1918. In Alabama, the first cases were reported in nearby Huntsville in September. Shortly after that, the flu was taking lives in all of Alabama’s 67 counties.   

The worst phase of the pandemic in Alabama occurred during the last two weeks of October, when 37,000 new cases were reported. 

While not all who contracted the Spanish flu perished from the disease, some who did died after a few hours of experiencing its symptoms – especially fluid-filled lungs that made it impossible for the victims to breathe.   

Massive lung congestion led to pneumonia, which is often identified as the cause of death rather than the fundamental cause, Spanish flu. 

When the first wave of American soldiers who had been sent “over there” began to return from Europe, the Spanish flu spread to all of the places they called home.  

Residents of big cities – Boston, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and others – panicked because their presumed leaders did not know what to do. Should they require, rather than simply suggest, steps such as those mentioned by Gov. Henderson in his proclamation?  

Oct. 7, 1918—Precautionary measures, such as closing schools, churches, theaters and picture shows and prohibiting all public gatherings because of the alarming spread of Spanish influenza, were recommended by Gov. Charles Henderson in a proclamation issued this afternoon. 

Oct. 11, 1918—Virgil Clarence Parker, a young man only 22 years old, succumbed to influenza today. His funeral will be at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, southeast of Hartselle. 

Oct. 11, 1918—Rep. Edward B. Almon of the 8th Alabama district left Washington tonight for Tuscumbia to attend the bedside of Walter H. Williams, his son-in-law, who is reportedly fatally stricken with Spanish influenza. Rep. Almon’s daughter, Mrs. Williams, is desperately ill with the same malady in the district. 

Oct. 16, 1918Because of the rapid spread of Spanish influenza, it is entirely possible the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, will not be held here (New Decatur) Oct. 30, the date fixed nearly one year ago. Under present conditions it will be impossible for local Methodists to entertain the anticipated 500 delegates and visitors. Notice to this effect has already been served on Bishop Atkins of Waynesville, Tenn., by the Rev. J. C. Persinger. 

Oct. 17, 1918—Lizzie Mae Lemley died today as a result of the virulent influenza epidemic that is sweeping Alabama and the rest of the nation. Lizzie Mae was only 15. 

Oct. 26, 1918—Acting upon the advice of Judge Robert Brickell and Judge Osceola Kyle, Sheriff A. A. Rollo has given out a hundred gallons of whiskey to influenza sufferers. This whiskey was seized about three years ago from persons not legally authorized to have it.  Since 1915, all sales of beverage alcohol in Alabama have been prohibited.  

Oct. 26, 1918—The influenza epidemic here is now practically under control. No deaths have been reported the past 48 hours and less than half a dozen new cases during the same period.  

(This assessment turned out to be exceedingly premature, as we will see next week.)