As the new Wuhan coronavirus dominates the headlines of mainstream news sources, we can look back on how we handled another disease that spread around the globe: the Spanish flu.
What would eventually become known as the Spanish flu began to spread in 1918. It was first perceived as an ordinary flu or even a more virulent strain of the common cold. The disease spread like wildfire in the close-quarter conditions of the trenches of the First World War. The constant transfer of troops and equipment between the United States and the European battlefields exacerbated the problem, with returning ships bringing the pestilence with them.
On Sept. 19, 1918, the disease showed up in Wilmington, N.C. Within less than a week, there would be more than 500 cases in that city. Over the course of the next few weeks, the disease began to spread further throughout the state. On Oct. 4, the city of Durham’s Board of Health took the step of shuttering churches, movie theaters and other public venues in the city. On Oct. 18, the Durham Morning Herald reported the city’s first influenza-related deaths as well as 2,308 additional cases in the city.
By Oct. 9, the flu had spread to Chapel Hill, but The Daily Tar Heel proudly reported that “the epidemic of Spanish influenza has been checked and is now well in hand." Unfortunately, on Oct. 8, the University lost its first student to the Spanish flu, William Bunting of Fayetteville. On Oct. 12, it lost its second, Robert Templeton, Jr. of Charlotte. On Oct. 23, a nurse at the University infirmary, Bessie Roper of Asheville, died after helping the sick there. The disease took the life of then-University President Edward Graham on Oct. 26. His successor, Marvin Stacy, would also be lost to the disease, dying in January 1919. By spring 1919, more than 500 infected were treated at the University’s infirmary, and seven died.
The Daily Tar Heel archives reveal what was happening on campus during the outbreak. Members of the school’s Woman’s Association made gauze masks for the infirmary. Members of the YMCA “visit[ed] the men in the hospitals, taking to them their mail, flowers, stationary and magazines” during the epidemic.