Flu Pandemic (1919)

Written By Shane Williams


Known widely as the “Spanish flu,” the influenza reached the United States during World War I.  The first instance in North Carolina was reported on September 27, 1918.  North Carolinians had previously battled the “grippe” flu but never a strain as fatal as the new one. Origins of the disease were unknown.  Many had difficulty identifying the disease, for typhoid fever and tuberculosis also affected the state. The influenza spread rapidly throughout the state and country in great part because hospitals were unprepared and lacked a quarantine area.


Flu symptoms manifested quickly. Initially, the victim suffered a fever for three days that in many cases led to death.  Victims’ skin then turned blue as their lungs swelled with fluid. Their respiratory system would shut down as their tissue lacked enough oxygen. This new influenza struck down not only the young and old but also the healthy adult. Poverty, lack of sanitation, and crowded conditions increased the number of deaths. Many of the fearful locked themselves in their homes and refused to open doors. Business owners often nailed doors shut and served customers one at a time. Teachers taught students over the phone, and churches, social functions, tobacco houses, and stores were closed.


The influenza hit North Carolina first in Wilmington and slowly spread westward. The pandemic filled North Carolina’s medical and public health services.  To stop the spread of the virus, the State Board of Health banned public gatherings, closed schools, and quarantined victims. But the policy began too late and was difficult to administer. As public officials failed to combat the problem, volunteer groups such as the American Red Cross began to treat victims and provide adequate medicine and food for the sick.  The State Board of Health recommended “sunshine and open air” to cure the disease. Doctors and medical aids also used calomel to treat the flu but it was ineffective along with many other remedies.


Lessons were learned through the ordeal.  The government and medical field officials started educating the public. Today, medical research notes the origins of the disease as an Influenza A virus strain. The virus attacked the immune system, so in the end, the disease proved to be fatal for many previously healthy individuals. Over 13,000 North Carolinians died.  In many cases, victims were dead after only 48 hours after contact. Many residents in mill towns and soldiers on military camps were victims, especially those in Camp Greene near Charlotte.