In April, 1917, the United States entered World War I. Before one year had passed – in March, 1918 – a flu-like illness had been detected in the country.

According to a CDC timeline, over 100 soldiers in Fort Riley, Kansas, had become sick. Within one week, the number had risen to 500.

Eventually 50 million people would die. This included 8,000 in Tennessee. Bill Carey described the epidemic in the “History Lesson” in the September, 2014, issue of “Tennessee Magazine.”

In Tennessee, hardest hit were Memphis, Nashville, and Old Hickory. Old Hickory, of course, was the location of the gunpowder plant so necessary for efforts in World War I. There were many workers there, working through many shifts – a necessary situation.

The virus, however, was not just limited to well-populated places. In mountainous areas such as Cumberland County and in Morgan County, many became sick. In the latter, for example, 98 percent of the 500 citizens were ill.

The flu made the headlines in Nashville papers on Oct. 8, 1918, with the news that schools were closed. The “Nashville Banner” also reported the closing of “theaters, picture shows, carnivals, dance halls, billiard and pool parlors” throughout Nashville.

On Oct. 13, church sanctuaries were being used as hospitals. Church services were discontinued.

The death toll among Americans as a whole that October was 195,000. In Nashville, 435 people died in October.

The number of deaths in Nashville had first been reported as “only” 266.

The discrepancy was apparently due to the war. There was a “wartime censorship” that caused bad news to be downplayed. And there was so much focus on the war that some events were “overlooked.”

The pandemic had eased in Nashville by November, 1918. Schools, churches, places of entertainment were re-opened, according to Carey.

The number of sick went back up after Armistice Day, however, as people gathered to celebrate. And there were other waves of influenza across the country as long as the summer of 1919.

The damage had been done. 

In Philadelphia, cold storage plants had to be used as morgues. A trolley car manufacturer donated 200 packing crates to be used as coffins in that same city.

There had also been critical shortages of nurses. Large numbers had been sent to military camps here and abroad. (At the time, trained African-American nurses were not being used.)

The book “Robertson County Tennessee” by Yolanda Reid and Rick Gregory contains several quotes made by those who lived through the epidemic here. These include memories by both physicians and by ordinary citizens.

In Elmwood Cemetery is the headstone of J. Walter Browning. He had been a farmer in Cedar Hill, had gone to Camp Gordon to train as a soldier, and had died not of bullets but of flu.

Camp records and cemetery records show that he was not alone.

Of course, as with most tragic circumstances, there were eventually benefits. For example, hospitals across Tennessee were either created or expanded.

Bill Carey wrote that Protestant Hospital was started in December, 1918. It became Baptist Hospital.

The Carnegie Foundation increased its donation to the new Vanderbilt Medical School. Because of that donation, Vanderbilt opened the first medical school-hospital in the country in 1925.

Hopefully the day will come when benefits from the current pandemic can be seen.

In the Eagle’s Eye is sponsored by the Robertson County Historical Society. Call 615-382-7173 for more information.

Recommended for you