1918 Spanish Flu in Harrisonburg

Jeremy Aldrich -- April 26th, 2009

Today, the Department of Homeland Security identified swine flu as a public health emergency for the United States.  Between breaking news reports and news segments with medical information, attention is also turning to a forgotten chapter in American (and local) history: the 1918 “Spanish flu” which sickened half of the world’s population at the time and killed an estimated 675,000 Americans.

There is no record that the first wave of the so-called Spanish flu, which started in the spring of 1918, reached Harrisonburg.  It was mostly confined to military bases and prisons.  But after a quiet summer, a second wave of the virus hit hard in autumn, including at JMU, which used to be called the State Normal and Industrial School for Women at Harrisonburg:

Fall session opened Sept 25, 1918 during a time when “Spanish influenza was spreading rapidly throughout the state.”  By October 7th, 125 students had been stricken, along with half the faculty. Class attendance was so low “that it seemed useless to continue classes.”  Jackson Hall had become a hospital, with faculty and students volunteering as nurses after two of three available nurses were taken ill themselves. Burruss closed the school for 2 weeks to “devote all the time and energy of those who were well to caring for the sick.”  However, he had to wait until November 6 to re-open in accordance with advice from a local physician, owing to epidemic conditions in the Harrisonburg area.

The school’s president, Julian Burruss, was one of the sick and was confined to his room for three weeks.

Fortunately, none of the school’s students or faculty died from the outbreak, but the same could not be said for others in the community.  Among the notable citizens who died were the business manager for the Daily Independent newspaper and the wife of the city’s physician, who was himself recovering from the flu.  I have not been able to find a count of the total deaths in the area.

Public health has progressed considerably since that time, but the best things that can be done to prevent a repeat pandemic are keeping your hands clean, keeping the sick away from the uninfected, and seeking medical help if needed.

15 Responses to “1918 Spanish Flu in Harrisonburg”

  1. Ryan Brooke says:

    Wow, it’s scary to think that history might be repeating itself. Lets hope it doesn’t though.

  2. Don says:

    Hello Jeremy. I check this website several times a day and if the quality of your previous posts here is an indication, we will be truthfully and reliably kept up-to-date on flu developments. That may be extremely critical if the community is in need of information and/or the flu becomes pandemic. I hope this website’s server is up to the task. Thank you for your efforts here.

  3. Bill says:

    If we have to wait on our local newspaper or TV staion to inform us we’ll be a day late. They have to get their info from the RTD and channel 29 the day before so they can get it into print or broadcast the second day.

  4. Thanks for your kind words Don. I certainly can’t take credit for the majority of good posts that appear here, but I am happy to be part of the group that contributes.

    There is a tension in the media between not wanting to incite panic but also wanting to keep viewers and keep people informed. Because of wartime censorship, the American media and many local officials completely failed to prepare people in 1918. The fact is that the current strain of swine flu seems to have mild effects in the US, which is good. But it is traveling from human to human, which is bad. It is unusual for spreading so late in the season, and for (in Mexico) killing healthy adults rather than children and the elderly. The Spanish Flu was, as mentioned above, relatively mild in the spring and then it seems to have mutated to become the more deadly strain seen in the fall of 1918.

    The avian flu scare of a couple years ago never panned out because it had not adapted for efficient human-to-human spread. It is worth noting that many folks in the know have been warning for years that we are “overdue” for a pandemic. It would be wise to consider what you can do to be ready to care for yourself and your neighbors if daily life changes and the medical system becomes overwhelmed as happened way back when.

  5. Drew Richard says:

    Here’s a great map I found that is keeping track of all the reported cases. Still pretty far way, but this doesn’t seem like something that would take long to spread. http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&t=p&msa=0&msid=106484775090296685271.0004681a37b713f6b5950&ll=35.496456,-76.640625&spn=25.610769,50.053711&z=5

  6. I did some more research and wasn’t sure whether to update this one or not, so I just wrote an entirely new post over on another blog – http://globalvirtual.blogspot.com/2009/04/what-i-learned-from-1918-spanish-flu.html

  7. First two cases (seemingly unrelated to one another) reported in Virginia. Both are adults, in different parts of the state, and both have recovered. http://www.vdh.virginia.gov/news/PressReleases/2009/043009SwineFlu.htm

  8. momof2 says:

    You know, I am seeing conflicting information from the Virginia Department of Health, when you would think they would keep their site updated with current information. The other day, when the U.S. experienced the first death associated with the H1N1 flu, the VDH website was still saying “all U.S. cases have recovered”. And now today, their site is saying what you report above, that the two cases were not students, from different parts of the state. But TV3 is saying that 2 Washington and Lee students in Lexington have confirmed cases. So the CDC is still, as of this moment, only reporting 2 cases in Virginia, so who is right? Where were these two confirmed cases?


    Also, do you think Harrisonburg is at an increased risk because of the high population of people traveling back and forth to Mexico?

  9. The health infrastructure will probably have to stop reporting numbers on a daily basis because of the difficulty of doing so…they have to figure out how to inform people about threats to specific communities in a timely manner without publishing incorrect or unconfirmed numbers. People who were sick in Virginia this week may or may not have been tested, and the results could just be coming in due to the testing backlog at the state and federal levels. Based on what I’m seeing, I expect that in the next few days we will realize that H1N1 is all over Virginia already and probably has been for several days. If that happens, local schools will have to decide whether to follow the recommendations of the CDC to close for “up to 14 days” (their guidelines change daily and used to say “for at least two weeks”), or whether they will stay open and hope for the best during this month that for most schools is dominated by end-of-year SOL testing.

    Yes, Harrisonburg is at increased risk because of the back and forth with Mexico. But at this point, it’s spreading beyond just that group. Neither of the Washington and Lee students had been to Mexico themselves, and in Maryland they’re seeing several confirmed cases with no direct connection to Mexico.

  10. Emmy says:

    Keep in mind that the death here in the US was of a child from Mexico who was brought to a US hospital.

    Jeremy is right, it’s probably all over Virginia as well as many other states. But, it’s the flu and people are getting over it. Most cases of this flu will need no medical attention.

  11. You’re absolutely right, Emmy…the real threat to Harrisonburg with the current strain of flu is in disruption to daily life, not in large numbers of deathly ill people. It seems likely that even in Mexico, the death toll is a reflection not of the strain’s power but how widespread it was/is. For a family like mine that is used to going to the grocery store several times a week for small trips, the thought of food supplies being disrupted means we need to have a plan. I’ve also read a number of medical types saying if you’re sick with the flu or think you are, stay away from the hospital and call your primary care physician instead, barring an emergency, of course.

  12. Emmy says:

    Honestly at this point, I’m not even worried about the disruption because I don’t think it will happen. Now, if they close schools and everyone has to stay home from work with their kids then I guess that’s possible. Personally I think everyone should have a supply of food and necessities to get them through a few days anyway. I’m guilty of not having bottled water though.

    Certainly call before going to the doctor unless it is clearly an emergency. The best way I know to get sick is to go to the doctor’s office. People also need to remember that the pollen count is very high right now so if you feel bad, it could be allergies. Half my sons school is sick right now, but I highly doubt it’s the flu. Spring colds and high pollen count appear to be the culprits.

  13. David Miller says:

    My emergency management plan is to lock myself inside Midtowne and party like it’s the plague.

  14. momof2 says:

    I think this is an example of how statistics are very often skewed, and how governmental organizations can make something can look very different on paper than what really happened. In the beginning they were saying, test everyone with flu symptoms. Now they are saying, only test people with “severe” symptoms, high fever, etc. As many have pointed out, it is likely this strain is producing many more cases that are mild and not seeking medical attention.

  15. David Miller says:

    I hope that you are correct in your assessment. I find myself coming to that same conclusion.

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