What’s Past is Prologue

During our battle with the Pandemic of 2020, we looked to history for lessons to help us combat the virus. The 1918 flu virus that took the lives of more Americans than did deaths in the Civil War, World Wars I and II and the Korean and Vietnam wars was a place for the medical community to begin its research. Here is a look at what took place in Chattanooga and at the University of Chattanooga during the Pandemic of 1918. 

World War I—infamously known as The Great War—still dominated newspaper front page headlines as Chattanooga’s influenza cases began to rise in the fall of 1918. In early October, the city issued a ban on large gatherings and began efforts to curtail the spread of the “Spanish Flu,” or “the grip” as locals called it. As the disease spread globally, entering homes of the rich and poor, urban and rural, it would claim more than 675,000 American lives, far more than the 117,466 who died in World War I.  

The disease hit the U.S. in waves. The first lasted from February until April but didn’t reach Chattanooga. The second ran from August through October and was far more deadly; the third began in January 1919. 

In Chattanooga, hopes were that the second wave might miss the city and, even on Oct. 1, officials kept that optimism alive. By the end of that week, though, 12 people had died at Army posts in North Georgia. By Oct. 21, 99 deaths and, by the end of the outbreak, 6,504 cases were reported in the city by a U.S. Public Health report. 

Locally, refreshment halls locked their doors when curfews were issued on Oct. 10. The usually bustling Market Street downtown looked like a “deserted country road,” the newspaper said as businesses closed early and locals were encouraged to stay home.

All schools closed, except one: the University of Chattanooga. Although the university sent its female students home for an “influenza holiday”—as some described it in the University Echo student newspaper—operations never ceased at the school. Faculty and male students enrolled in the newly formed Student Army Training Corps at the University of Chattanooga carried on.  

On Oct. 11, under a page six headline, “Three Thousand Masks Needed Immediately: Red Cross Congested Cannot Meet Demand,” the Chattanooga News described a need for nurses to treat cases on the UC campus. “There are ten or twelve cases there and no one to nurse them but Mrs. A.J. Gahagan,” the story said. 

The same article described how almost everyone on the streets of Chattanooga was masked that morning. Even the elevator boys in local hotels and multi-story office buildings wore masks, as did Western Union telegram messengers as they trekked through the city.   

By Oct. 25, all UC Student Army Training Corps students at UC were fully recovered except one, the Chattanooga News reported. The final patient was transferred to Erlanger Hospital, and University President Fred Hixson was quoted as saying, “Not a single teacher has been ill with influenza.”  

Four days later, “picture shows” reopened after “nearly two weeks of darkness,” the newspaper said, and the University announced regular courses and school hours would resume the next day, Wednesday Oct. 30, at 8 a.m. 

University publications from 1918 and 1919 hardly mention the flu pandemic. In one of the few times it’s referenced, football Coach Lt. William V. Jarratt writes an op-ed with the headline: “Innumerable Obstacles Beset the Team.” Jarratt wrote, “The world-wide epidemic of Spanish influenza caused the late start in football, practice not beginning until after the city’s quarantine had been lifted. Then the men had to learn the game from start to finish in 10 days, for that was the time for our first game. It was a hard undertaking.”  

The 1918 football team had a “lousy season,” attributed to the players’ lack of experience (many previous team members joined the war efforts) and a late start in football practice. 

Amid alumni news and student happenings, UC students Florence Shrode, Nell Burdick and Emma Kelley are mentioned under the University Echo Society Notes for volunteering as nurses “during the influenza epidemic.” Kelley is listed also as a volunteer at the American Red Cross headquarters in East Lake, according to a Chattanooga News article. 

Nearly 700 influenza deaths were reported in Chattanooga. An article in the January 1919 Tennessee State Medical Association Journal claims “the pandemic was enhanced greatly by the shortage of physicians”—the same journal reported 21% of Hamilton County physicians were away at war—but physicians away at war was not the only reason. “War conditions in part were responsible, but without the war we were not prepared effectually to deal with a pandemic of the nature of influenza,” the article states. 

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