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  • Karen Washburn

Part III The 1918 Flu Pandemic Takes A Terrible Toll in Northern Virginia's Countryside

(See two previous posts for Part I and Part II on this site.)

The Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918 arrived in Northern Virginia in September. In spite of early optimism on the part of the government that it wouldn’t amount to much, it quickly became an epidemic. In hopes of limiting the spread of the disease the government and the Surgeon General issued a spate of directions and regulations. These included instructions for personal hygiene, social distancing, and the care of those who were infected. The final and most emphasized of these instructions was SEND FOR A DOCTOR.

Access to professional medical help was one of the biggest problems in the countryside. Doctors’ practices covered large areas. In addition to regular office hours, all of them made house calls when summoned. However, sending for the doctor was not easily done and it was expensive. The telephone system had reached only a few of the farms. So in order to summon the doctor, it often was necessary to travel some distance to the nearest phone or to send a messenger to the doctor’s house.

Many doctors had cars, but the primitive conditions of the roads made travel slow. Often homes were located on farm lanes that in the fall and winter were totally impassable due to deep mud and bad ruts. It was not unusual for the doctor to have to walk the last half mile carrying his heavy bag of tools and medicines. Due to the time and effort involved, the price charged for a house call was between $2.50 and $3.00 for up to a distance of five miles. An additional 50 cents was charged for each mile beyond that. Charges for treatments and medicines were additional. While that sounds very cheap by modern standards, at the time farm laborers were usually paid $1.00 per day and house maids made about $1.25 per week with room and board included. And those wages were for a ten to twelve-hour day. So most people didn’t send for the doctor unless it was a matter of life or death.

The medical profession freely admitted that there was no cure for the flu and there was almost nothing that they could do if the patient developed the pneumonia that killed so many. The ventilator had not yet been invented. But that didn’t stop panicked people from sending for the doctor night or day to see flu victims.

By the middle of October so many in Fairfax and Loudoun were ill, that local doctors were literally worked to death. Whole households were infected with no one well enough to provide care. Sometimes a child of eight or nine years old would be the only one able to take care of a whole family. In that case, the beleaguered doctor would also become the nurse.

In the Great Falls neighborhood, long-time physician, Dr. Alfred Leigh worked night and day and traveled many miles as he made daily visits to the seriously ill. As more people fell ill, the list of visits grew longer. Not able to heed the advice from the Surgeon General to avoid excessive fatigue, he worked to the point of exhaustion. He died of Bright’s Disease on October 30 at the age of sixty-six. And it is a true mystery, given his repeated exposure, why he didn’t catch the flu.

Dr. Alfred Leigh, Virginia Room, Fairfax County Public Library

Dr. Leigh’s death left a large area without a physician. The closest doctors in Herndon and Vienna were already overloaded. Loudoun County also suffered from a lack of doctors, as five of those practitioners caught the flu. Dr. Gibson, of Leesburg, Dr. Copeland of Round Hill, and Dr. Plaster of Bluemont all ended up with pneumonia. Dr. Spitler and Dr. Goet in Middleburg were also ill with the disease. Many nurses at the Leesburg Hospital, which was filled to over capacity with flu victims, became victims themselves. It appears there was not a family in the county that was spared.

The last week in October an article in the Washington Post stated that the flu situation was improving due to the reduction in reported cases to only 456 instead of the 858 reported the day before, and only 54 people had died compared to 59 the day before. The following week, both the Fairfax Herald and the Loudoun Mirror reported that the number of cases was winding down and the epidemic appeared to be just about over. Schools were reopened, restrictions were lifted, and people tried to go back to their normal lives. Unfortunately, that was premature. It was not over yet!

A second outbreak occurred in December in the District of Columbia, Fairfax, and Loudoun. Schools and meeting places were closed again. In January more than fifty cases of flu and pneumonia were reported in the Great Falls area alone. At the same time twelve people in the small crossroads village of Forestville died in one week. Frantic Fairfax County officials appealed to the state for medical help. The State Board of Health sent a doctor who treated over 150 cases in two weeks.

Red Cross Nurses Preparing For Flu Cases Library of Congress

More than 17,000 people died of the Spanish Influenza in Virginia. Fairfax County had the second highest death rate of any county in the state. Those that survived had a very hard time trying to resume their normal lives. No one was left unaffected. In some instances, whole families had died. In others, half the members of a family had perished. Children were left with only one parent, or worse, orphans. Some parents were left childless. And in some horrible situations, a person was left widowed and childless through the death of all of their loved ones. Young children had been put into situations where they had to assume the job of nursing their parents and watching them die. Families that lost one or both parents were often broken up when the children were sent to live with different relatives in distant locations.

Because the epidemic occurred during wartime it is difficult to assess its economic impact on the area. Farmers suffered a loss of income when families could not provide the necessary labor to harvest, plant crops, or care for their animals due to illness or death. The same was true for small businesses. Many shops were already suffering losses from wartime shortages. While they were not required to close during the epidemic, in some cases, illness or the loss of family members was the final blow to their income stream. In Washington and Alexandria the financial repercussions were not as great. The huge influx of government salaried war-workers and military personnel supported those local economies. But there is no doubt, that the influenza epidemic of 1918 had far reaching consequences in the farm country that lasted for many years to come.

A century later here we are again. As we struggle to get a grip on what will stop the COVID-19 pandemic we need to learn from the past. Daily lifestyles have changed dramatically since 1918. And there have been enormous advances in medicine. The one thing that hasn’t changed from the beginning of time, is human nature! When COVID-19 began, we seem to have been struck by the same attitude as those in 1918: it’s “over there”, far away, no need to worry. Well, that wasn’t correct in 1918 nor is it in 2020.

“Those who ignore the past are doomed to relive it.” *

*Homer Bast, Professor of History, Roanoke College

Copyright Karen Washburn 2006

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Apr 22, 2020

Excellent series! Well written and I learned a lot. Thank you!


Apr 17, 2020

Excellent article and very interesting. Thank you.

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