special article by S . D . Taggart , md
The Deadliest Month : The Spanish Flu of 1918 in Rural Arkansas , A Historical Perspective
In 1917 , a novel virus emerged in northern China and within a year , a pandemic engulfed the world . In 1918 , the world population was 1.8 billion , between 20 to 50 million people died as a direct result of the Spanish Flu . Estimates vary widely as to the mortality rate associated with that round of the Flu , but it is generally agreed that 3-5 % of those infected with the virus died .
On December 31 , 2019 , the World Health Organization was alerted to a novel virus in the coronavirus family similar to SARS , MERS , and the common cold . On March 11th , 2020 , the head of the World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 outbreak a worldwide pandemic . The world population is now at 7.8 billion people . Since we really don ’ t have any idea as to how widely it has spread it is far to early to even comment on mortality rates and potential impact .
This article is an attempt to put in perspective what the people of rural Arkansas faced 100 years ago , what tools that had to deal with the pandemic , and how they responded .
Benton Courier , Oct . 10th , 1918
Benton and Vicinity is in Grip of an Epidemic of Spanish Influenza . Public Places Closed . No epidemic has had its grip on this country and county as has the Spanish influenza , which , during the past week has placed itself in almost every home … it has been announced that many churches will have no services Sunday … The American Bauxite Company had to shut down its plant on Tuesday on account of so many men being sick , and several have died in that section of the county .”
Gurdon Times , Oct . 19th , 1918
“ A gloom of sadness has been casted over our town and community this week by the several deaths caused by pneumonia as result of the influenza so persistent here and throughout the whole country .”
Stuttgart Daily Leader Oct 17th , 1918 “ The present epidemic in its death dealing wake during the past week claimed several of our citizens and friends , in its sweep , neither the old or the young are spared …”
During the Yellow Fever outbreak of 1888 , shot gun quarantine was a popular method of virus containment .
During the year of 1918 , good news was hard to come by . In the spring , the Germans went on the offensive and the Allied forces were battered . Until the late summer of 1918 , World War I was still in doubt . New recruits from across the country continued to be drafted . Daily papers in small towns across Arkansas carried headlined articles about the course of the war . The Red Cross aggressively campaigned for supplies and contributions . Letters to the editor and personal correspondence admonished people not to be a “ slacker ”; that is , not supporting the war effort .
The Spanish Flu struck the state in the last few days of September in 1918 and for four weeks held them in a literal death grip . Scientists speculate that the influenza began first attacking human beings with the advent of the Agricultural Revolution ( circa 7000 BCE ) and the domestication of pigs and chickens . The first documented occurrence of the flu was 2400 years ago recorded by Herodotus , a Greek historian . As human populations increased , and people began to congregate in larger numbers , crowd diseases like the flu began to occur in unpredictable cycles . When DeSoto and his fellow travelers made their way into the new world of the Western Hemisphere , they brought with them several of the crowd diseases such as smallpox , measles and flu . These illnesses found in the indigenous populations a virgin people who had no herd immunity . For several centuries , there were dramatic epidemics , killing off large parts of the resident populations of North , Middle , and South America .
The Italians coined the phrase Influenza in the 15th century and the French referred to the same disease as La Grippe . In the 19th century , local newspapers such as the Arkansas Gazette were replete with references to La Grippe . In 1889-1890 , an influenza labeled the Russian Flu made its way through Europe and crossed the Atlantic . Even though Arkansas was 98 % rural , the flu pandemic of that year killed 365 people in Arkansas before it receded .
Before we begin to discuss the flu of 1918 , it is important to remember that this was not the first time the state of Arkansas had
78 • The Journal of the Arkansas Medical Society www . ArkMed . org