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Episode 2: 1918 Flu Pandemic in S.C. | History in a Nutshell

October 24, 2019

While many young men were off fighting The
Great War, South Carolina, like many other states, was fighting a war of its own at home. This time, the fight was against Mother Nature. While mankind was busy innovating weapons
for war, Mother Nature devised a deadly creation of her own. An influenza pandemic known as the “Spanish
Flu” was spreading all over the world in 1918. Not to be confused with an epidemic, which
is a widespread sickness localized to one country or region, a pandemic affects the
whole world. It was popularly believed that this strain
of influenza originated in Spain, but this is not the case. Since Spain was neutral during WWI, it was
not affected by wartime censorship restrictions. Spain was the only country reporting about
the Pandemic in early 1918, hence why people thought the sickness originated there. With the outbreak of the Spanish Flu in January
1918, the flu would eventually spread from the war in Europe to the Eastern United States,
including South Carolina. Influenza first arrived in South Carolina
in Abbeville County, in September 1918. The S.C. State Board of Health concluded several reasons
why the flu first appeared in the Piedmont area. First was the direct railroad connection between
South Carolina, and Kansas, where the Pandemic first appeared in the United States. The other was due to the upstate being more
densely populated than any other part of the state. The flu spread rapidly in that region due
to the increasing popularity of cotton mills, drawing people in from the rural areas with
work opportunities. The nature of the work in the cotton mills;
working in close quarters around many people, made for a prime breeding ground for influenza
and pneumonia. It would not be long before the flu would
make its way throughout the state. The flu hit both rural and urban areas alike
during WWI era South Carolina. Urban areas in South Carolina suffered much
worse compared to their rural cousins. Counties such as Dillon, Greenville, Richland,
and Charleston were hit much harder than Beaufort, Cherokee, Fairfield, Colleton, and Saluda,
just to name a few. Rural areas fared better against the flu compared
to their urban counterparts. In rural areas, people primarily gathered
in churches and schools. Whereas in urban areas, larger populations
meant more people in many different places. Another reason Greenville, Richland, and Charleston
were among the worst was due to the military installations in place there: Camp Sevier
in Greenville, Camp Jackson in Richland, and the Navy Base in Charleston. Soldiers, marines, and sailors alike regularly
passed through these installations during the war. The close-quarter environments and poor sanitation
enabled the flu to spread like wildfire. News of the flu spread rapidly throughout
South Carolina’s communities. This caused mass panic and hysteria throughout
the state, and efforts needed to be taken to quell both the flu, and the panic. The state government rallied together community
leaders to come up with solutions to combat the Flu Pandemic. A general quarantine was put into effect,
where patients, along with the doctors and nurses treating them, had to be isolated for
a minimum of 5 days before returning to work, school, or other functions. In addition, many wore gauze or cloth masks
to prevent spread of infection by coughing or sneezing. On October 7, 1918, the State government directed
local health officers and county sheriffs to perform a mandatory shutdown of schools,
churches, and picture shows, and to prevent other public gatherings. Local businesses throughout the state were
encouraged to shut down as well, such as cotton mills, banks, and general stores. High volume gatherings were discouraged for
fear of spreading the pandemic. When conditions improved throughout South
Carolina’s communities, local authorities could lift quarantines at their discretion. However, authorities could renew the quarantines
should the flu return. The Pandemic dealt a major blow to South Carolina’s
economy, which was mostly agrarian. With the outbreak of the flu, many farmhands
and textile workers were incapacitated, and thus production of cotton and textiles were
significantly slowed. Companies lost money with many people at home
sick; little to no work could be done. The healthcare industry, on the other hand,
experienced a major boom. Patients flooded hospitals and doctors’ offices. The medical field was a male dominated industry
at the time and many of the doctors were off fighting World War I, serving as combat medics
and field surgeons. Women now began to fill roles once held by
men, allowing them opportunities for additional education, and filling shortages in the medical
field. Societal norms and laws from the period also
contributed to the number of deaths in South Carolina. Jim Crow laws made conditions even worse for
African American communities, compared to white communities. When comparing the infection and death statistics
throughout the state, in most cases, more African Americans died from the Pandemic compared
to whites. Segregation hindered African American patients
and health-care professionals from accessing healthcare facilities. As a result, African American communities
became responsible for their own health care in combating the flu. The Pandemic in the United States lasted until
about 1920, but the Pandemic in South Carolina slowed down mid-1919. South Carolina weathered the pandemic without
any real forms of medicine. Protection against influenza would finally
appear in 1938, with the development of a vaccine by Jonas Salk and Thomas Francis. While it is not 100% guaranteed protection,
given influenza’s mutative nature, getting your flu shot every year, and practicing good
hygiene are encouraged, since they are our only protection against the flu.

1 Comment

  • Reply Agusta Sister April 4, 2019 at 5:17 pm


    When.soldiers had.reached europe they qere in 5 to ten mile long emergency anything to be an ambulance…

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