Reflecting on the past
The 1918 flu mirrors today’s pandemic
By Marty Carter
Earlier this year, as the Hendricks County Historical Museum prepared for its 2020 season, volunteers took down last year’s exhibit on World War I, a small part of which told about the deadly flu epidemic that began early in 1918. It is sadly ironic how relevant that part of the story is now, 102 years later.
Although the United States had entered the war in 1917, many American soldiers were still in training camps or on ships in the fall of 1918 when the worst wave of the influenza hit. Medical professionals were at a loss to know exactly what they were dealing with or how to treat it. (Sound familiar?)
Frequently diagnosed as pneumonia, with the men crowded together, the sickness spread quickly. The movement of troops was at least partly responsible for the spread of the virus. Half of the 30 Hendricks County men known to have died in the war died of either influenza or pneumonia.
On Oct. 10, 1918, The Republican newspaper in Danville reported that influenza and pneumonia claimed “victims by the score” in the training camps. This flu not only hit older people but populations typically relatively unaffected were hit hard including young adults and children. When it was in the school it was brought home to the
A ban on public meetings caused the war mothers to stop meeting. Schools were closed in Coatesville and Amo, as they were throughout the county.
Each death tells a sad story.
Among Hendricks County soldiers, 11 of the 15 influenza and pneumonia deaths of local soldiers occurred at training camps. Two of them were doctors.
The O’Donnell family lost two sons a month apart.
Donald Helton, 19, died at Danville in a hospital associated with Central Normal College Students Army Training Corps.
At least one Hendricks County woman, Hazel Varley from Amo, died while nursing the soldiers in 1918.
On Nov. 11, 1918, the war officially ended, and celebrations were in order. Instead, three days later The Republican announced that schools in Danville were closed again, and the principal had the flu. The following week, the towns planned celebration of the
armistice was cancelled. The announcement added, “The Danville committee has a neat sum tied up in fireworks, ready for the first excuse to set it off.”
Hopeful reports of the decline of the illness were mixed with less hopeful news. On Dec. 19, 1918, The Republican printed an announcement from the Thompson Drug Company that said it
would remain open all day Sunday, “owing to the unusual amount of sickness,” and “All night calls will be answered at any hour, every night.” But from the same issue, the paper reported, “With the influenza epidemic on the decline, King basketball again reins in the high schools of Hendricks County.”
By mid-January, very few new cases were reported and no serious ones, as apparently the worst was over, at least for Hendricks County. There was a third wave in early 1919 but not as long lasting.
The so-called Spanish flu (that likely did not start in Spain and scientists cannot pinpoint the source) killed 40 to 50 million people worldwide. Approximately 25% of the population of the United States had the flu. In one year, the life expectancy in the U.S. dropped by 12 years. Having recently come through the flu epidemic when the 1920 census was taken, Hendricks County had 549 fewer people than in 1910.
~ Marty Carter is a board member for the Hendricks County Historical Museum.
1918 flu facts
16 million – Estimated number of people killed in World War I
50 million – Estimated number of people killed worldwide by the flu in 1918
One-fifth – The percentage of the world’s population affected by the flu
The flu killed more people than any other illness in recorded history.
The more deadly phase hit in the fall of 1918. Young adults were among the hardest hit,
along with the elderly and young children. Scientists, doctors and health officials were at a
loss to know how to identify and treat it.
25% – The percentage of the U.S. population affected by the flu.
12 years – The number of years the average U.S. life expectancy dropped in one year the
after the flu
Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-