History Repeats Itself: the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

This post is part of the blog series, “History Repeats Itself,” which discusses events in North Carolina history that correspond with current events and draw attention to related North Carolina Digital Collections materials.

Exactly one century ago, the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic wreaked havoc on the world and became the worst flu outbreak in recorded history. This pandemic was said to be responsible for the deaths of approximately 50-100 million people worldwide, nearly 14,000 North Carolinians were among those who died.

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Illustration from the October 1919 issue of the Health Bulletin (vol 34, issue 10), published by the North Carolina State Board of Health.

While this year’s flu season has not reached pandemic proportions, the percentage of deaths from pneumonia and influenza-like illnesses is currently considered epidemic across the country.

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A letter written by John Burt Exum to his mother, September 26, 1918; the letter reads, “Dear Mother: I am now having a pretty good time and am very well. I have had a case of La Grippe and I faired right bad then for I couldn’t get but very little attention. It lasted me about four days and all the while I was marked up for light duty. I wished for you to nurse me.” Military Collection. World War I Papers. Private Collections. Box 54, John Burt Exum Papers. State Archives of NC.

The “Spanish influenza” earned its name from a rumor that the virus had first emerged in Spain. In fact, this pandemic is thought to have originated in a military training camp in Kansas and appeared in North Carolina first in Wilmington. The first wave of this pandemic appeared in the spring of 1918 and was followed by much more fatal second and third waves in the fall and winter of 1918 and 1919.

At the time, North Carolina’s public health systems were fairly basic and they were severely unprepared for the epidemic. The state’s public health response—which was to ban public gatherings and quarantine those who were ill—was also very weak and had little effect. Aid groups like the Red Cross organized volunteers to visit the sick and deliver medicine or food.

The outbreak took the lives of two University of North Carolina presidents. Edward Kidder Graham died from the flu on October 26, 1918 and Marvin Hendrix Stacy also died from the flu on January 21, 1919 after becoming the acting university president following Graham’s death.

This flu season, heed the sound advice from the November 1919 issue of “Health Bulletin” published by the North Carolina State Board of Health: “DON’T GIVE INFLUENZA TO OTHERS AND DO NOT LET OTHERS GIVE IT TO YOU.”


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