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1918 flu pandemic news dwarfed by war

By Marcia Phillips

For the Enterprise

Current events remind us of the deadliest medical crisis in history, the Influenza pandemic of 1918, and reminds us how much worse things could be and were then.

1918 was a different time, in every sense of the word. Rarely has a century in world history brought more changes and improvements that could have altered the death rate then.

Within a few months, the 1918 pandemic had claimed more than half a million victims in America and between 40 and 100 million worldwide.

First mistakenly called the Spanish Flu, the 1918 influenza sounded exotic and distant from rural North Carolinians. Furthermore, the world’s attention was consumed in the fall of 1918 with the end of World War I, the most horrific conflict ever witnessed with fire that fell from the sky and trenches that became instant graves in the onset of chemical warfare. Every news item told of the first and the worst in military history.

Davie County young men were still being called up to serve in the war in Europe as late as October (It ended famously on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918). At the same time a quiet enemy was surging across the country undetected until too late to distance oneself from it. The virus moved quicker than the weekly newspaper could inform citizens of its arrival.

It seemingly came out of nowhere and did not appear at first to have been taken seriously enough. While the WW I warfare was the most frightening ever widely known to man, plagues and epidemics were common in world history with the most recent having only been 28 years before.

Almost every generation had come to expect a medical crisis but rarely before had it been considered more than a local outbreak in a time when few people traveled as widely as now and large gatherings were family reunions and camp meetings. Not surprisingly the travelers who brought it home were the returning soldiers and the large population concentrations were military camps. Human demographics reveal that more baby boys survive infancy than girls but that ratio is reversed by wars. Additionally, it was further impacted in the early 20th century by the pandemic.

One such encampment was Camp Jackson near Columbia, S.C. where soldiers were waiting to be shipped out and returning from action. Ominously the latter brought back with them a strain of influenza that was particularly virulent and deadly, even for healthy young men. It struck the camp in August and within days hundreds were sick and many dying. Included among these, the Davie Record tells us, were 21-year-old Lee Powell from the Center community who had just been inducted three months before and Dr. Marcus Calvin Hauser from the Fork community who was treating the sick soldiers.

Sadly, both caught the influenza and did not survive it.

Sept. 1 saw Maxie Godbey join the camp, like so many others excited for the adventure of their young lives, only to die Oct. 21 having never shipped out. Instead, his body was escorted home to also be buried at Center Methodist Church cemetery. His older brother Filmore Godbey survived, returned home to have a family and lived to the age of 69. Another Fork doctor, Garland Vestal Green, was stationed at other camps and returned to practice locally for decades.

The Davie Record had surprisingly few articles about the influenza during the peak of the epidemic in October and November, instead being swamped by the numerous war stories. Plenty of advertisements of tonic promised to cure it but the obituaries tell the real human toll. A mother and two small children of hers in Cooleemee passed away and Mr. and Mrs. Atwood died within 12 hours of each other and were buried in the same grave, orphaning five children aged 13 and younger. Young adults were also hard hit like 20 year old Bessie Dixon and 24 year old Grady Ratledge. Perhaps the last local victim lingered a month and died on Jan. 30, 1919 when Virgil Foster joined his ancestors in Rose Cemetery. He was 15.

There are not great medical records of the many who had the influenza and survived. If only there was an equivalent to obituaries marking recoveries. The newspaper does record that some communities like Advance only had light cases while Cana and Cooleemee were particularly hard hit.  And families suffered concentrated losses as they shared the same crowded spaces and germs. On a brighter side, the Ferebee family in heavily affected Cana welcomed a newborn in the midst of the pandemic in the waning hours of World War I that would grow up to participate in the end of World War II; they named him Thomas but this event went unnoted in the local news.

Ironically, the Davie County soldiers who shared bunkers with thousands of others at Camp Jackson might have crossed paths with another influenza casualty there named Private Roscoe Vaughan, who became sick on Sept. 19 and died on the 26th but became a historical figure decades later. Physicians were overwhelmed then, as now, and mostly moved from one patient to the next but remarkably a Captain Hegeforth took a sample of Pvt. Vaughan’s right lung tissue immediately after his death and preserved it in formaldehyde and wax. It was stored in a vast government warehouse in Washington DC (think Indiana Jones and the ark of the covenant) for almost 80 years. Many scientists had tried to isolate and identify the deadly virus but it was only possible when this preserved sample was discovered and studied in 1996, from a long deceased soldier from Camp Jackson.

The virus that took a lifetime to identify could not have been prevented medically at the time; it moved faster than science could keep up.  The government did encourage citizens in the newspaper to “guard against droplet infection;” however, quarantine was not widely employed – “the town fathers do not think the situation serious enough to compel families of those afflicted to stay off the streets and out of stores” (Davie Record). Precautions no doubt would have saved many lives and will be the hallmark of the history of this current virus when it is told.

To learn more about this story, Marie Craig’s book Davie County in World War I tells the soldiers’ life stories and the book Flu by Gina Kolata is the fascinating account of how the mystery of the 1918 virus was solved.

Marcia Phillips is a local historian and author.