Influenza in Athens

The Spanish Influenza of 1918 was one of the deadliest pandemics that the world has ever seen. The virus gained its name for multiple reasons: 1) international press wanted to source the epidemic from a wartime neutral country and, 2) Spain was one of the only countries at the time attempting to treat the influenza, which led people to believe it had started there and was hitting the population especially hard. The source of the virus is contested, with some researchers claiming that the disease originated in Ètaples, France while others suggest it had its origins in Kansas. However, it is widely accepted that the virus began in animal livestock, most likely harbored in birds. The virus is believed to have infected 500 million people (about one-third of the world’s population), and between 50-100 million people died. 

What was unique about the virus was the fact that the main demographic it was attacking was healthy, young individuals, the very opposite of who normally succumbs to disease. The highest mortality was for individuals between the ages of 20-40 years old because the virus triggered what is known as a “cytokine storm” in healthy immune systems, which essentially means that the immune system is using everything it can to fight the virus. Influenza was even more deadly for pregnant women, who have some of the strongest immune systems on the planet. What made the virus even more unusual was that the virus was widespread in the summer and fall (in the Northern Hemisphere), when influenza is usually worse in the winter. The virus was able to spread quickly and efficiently because of a more global, wartime society. With no vaccine to protect against influenza or even the other illnesses/infections associated with it (pneumonia is often found hand-in-hand with influenza during this time period), many people attempted to stave off the infection with isolation, quarantine, limited public gatherings, and good personal hygiene. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

United States

In January of 1918, Loring Miner - a local physician in a small Kansas town - observed an abnormal degree of influenza activity. By reporting this to the U.S. Public Health Service, he marked the world’s first, but certainly not the last, report of this nature for the year (Smithsonian Magazine). Influenza was officially recognized across the United States as a major health problem in October of that year. The U.S. Public Health Service issued an official public health bulletin on influenza, warning citizens about the “very contagious kind of cold,” (The Athens Banner). Citizens were warned to quarantine themselves if they began experiencing symptoms, and made the public aware that the disease was spread from person to person by mucus. This illustrates the government’s effort and drive to help the American public stay healthy in the wake of this new pandemic.

Many Americans rose to the challenge of combating the pandemic, as health professionals volunteered tirelessly to tend to the ill (NCBI). The effects of the pandemic were longer lasting than the pandemic itself, as children were left orphaned and people were forced to rebuild their lives. The disease became a daily reality in the lives of American citizens, and schoolchildren could be heard singing the rhyme, “I had a little bird/its name was Enza/I opened up the window/and in flew Enza,” (American College of Emergency Physicians). 


On September 18, residents of Atlanta learned that soldiers of the Second Infantry Replacement Regiment at nearby Camp Gordon… had been placed under quarantine…” Such news was no profound surprise for Atlantans, as the Northeast United States sounded the alarm for quarantine in the wake of the newfound strain of “Flu” in the months before the Autumn of 1918 (Influenza Encyclopedia). What would follow in the coming weeks would amount to bizarre ordinances, an undesirable ban on public gatherings like church-going or frequenting movie houses, the threat of a skewed holiday season because of the epidemic, and of course, death. By the end of October, the Atlanta quarantine was lifted, and diagnosis reports for Influenza waned while cases of Pneumonia surged into the Spring of the following year. Earlier, in the Spring of 1918, a resident of Athens and UGA alumni, John Hale, began receiving cases of a particularly aggressive strain of Influenza, the likes of which had never been seen before.

Further study into the malady coupled with reports from around the United States and abroad led to the realization of what came to be known as the “Spanish Flu” (UGAToday). Since the terrible onset of the virus in the years of 1918-1919, documentation has proven difficult to interpret, as documented diagnoses have been called into question whether by misdiagnosis of other diseases, lack of or carelessness in documentation equitably between sexes and ethnicities, bias from medical practitioners, or decentralization of record-keeping (Public Health Reports). Regardless, one constant remains - death records. In the aftermath of the Spring and Autumn waves of Influenza of 1918-1919, the city of Atlanta professed 829 deaths related to Influenza. In Athens, the recorded number reached over 200, many of which John Hale attempted to heal (UGAToday). 


As influenza spread throughout the world in the early 20th century, many steps are put in effect to stop the spread of the virus. Measures such as quarantines, city statutes, and “anti-spit” ordinances are implemented in 1918 Athens. On October 5, students that were infected with influenza were put in quarantine in Peabody Hall (The Athens Banner). Two days later at 7 p.m. on October 7, 1918, the city of Athens along with the University of Georgia began a general quarantine of students in order to mitigate the spread of the flu. The quarantine lasted until to November 1, 1918. Within the 70 infected students, around 3-4 of them were said to be in critical condition.  When the quarantine was lifted, around 800 -1000 people were infected with the virus (Red and Black). Around this same time period John Hale, a UGA graduate, was infected with the flu. Hale graduated from in 1890 with a degree in metaphysics and noted with “the highest honor UGA could bestow”. As the flu epidemic spread globally Hale began to practice his metaphysical knowledge in the form of alternative medicine. Despite knowing that influenza was rapidly spreading and highly contagious, Hale proceeded to treat and assist individuals infected with the flu. October 7th, the same day that UGA/Athens was put under quarantine, Hale began to show symptoms of the flu. In an effort to save his wife, who was pregnant, Hale quarantine himself. Unfortunately, 10 days later on October 17, Hale passed away from influenza. His wife, Annie and their son Dan did survive the epidemic (UGAToday). 


Ellie Cash, Alexa Cashen, Eli Hickey, and Daniel Prócel

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