By Dr. Curtis Varnell
The worst pandemic ever? The coronavirus? The bubonic plague? Not even close. The worst plague ever occurred in 1918-19, right after World War 1. Commonly called the Spanish flu, it actually originated on March 11, 1918 at Fort Funston, Kansas. A company cook reported to the infirmary with a low-grade fever, sore throat, muscle aches, and a headache. By noon, he was joined by 107 other soldiers.
Then it began to spread to other bases around the country. Within seven days, every state in the Union was infected and it spread across the Atlantic. By mid-May the flu was found in Europe, China, Japan, and into Africa and South America. Thousands, including sixty per-cent of the Eskimo in Nome, Alaska died. Luxury liners would arrive in port with 7% less passengers than they had when they embarked. Not from the infection but from the pneumonia that accompanied it.
Here in Arkansas, entire families fell victim. At one local cemetery, a doctor, his wife, and four of his children are buried around one common stone. At what is now Camp Robinson in Little Rock, the infirmary was admitting one thousand men per day. The camp was sealed and the commandant refused to issue the names of the dead to the press. Emergency actions cleared barracks and armories and they were converted to areas to care for the sick. At Eberts Field in Lonoke, 62 of the 240 medical personal contracted the influenza. Of the almost 900 Arkansas soldiers who died in WWI, 47% died of the illness. In the end, some 37 million people died, an estimated 25 MILLION in the first year.
Near Greenwood, the Excelsior cemetery is filled by miners and their family who died from the disease. People were encouraged to cover their faces with handkerchiefs, avoid crowds, walk to work, to not share common cups, and to not spit on floors. Some schools dismissed. Many of the teachers and older students immediately volunteered to work at the hospitals and students helped build and set up the beds needed for patients.
The virus is believed to have mutated from birds, into swine, and from there into humans. Eighteen months after the disease appeared, the bug vanished and has never shown up again. The swine flu presented us some important lessons from history. It left us with the knowledge that bad things happen but we can adjust and survive. It also left us with the knowledge that in these times people pull together, care for others, and things will get better. Just like in 1919, better and brighter days are ahead for our neighbors and for ourselves.