KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The Coronavirus (COVID-19) is making headlines, dominating conversations and changing the way we interact with each other.
But we wanted to look back in history when a virus swept through the country: the Influenza Pandemic of 1918.
Knoxville historians say 1918 was a dramatic year because everyone was worried about the war, then came a virus that changed everyday life.
“We thought we’d heard about it in other places. We thought we were kind of dodging a bullet and then suddenly in October, around October 3rd, 1918 suddenly a few local soldiers got sick and within about two weeks 6,000 people in Knoxville were sick with the Spanish flu,” said Jack Neely, Executive Director of Knoxville History Project.
Neely says it was a challenging time in Knoxville as WWI was happening overseas, “There were some weeks where more people were dying here than dying in Europe.”
The 1918 flu, also called the Spanish flu, encouraged city leaders to take precautions.
“Chilhowee Park had unfortunately just opened up Tennessee Valley Fair, which was called East Tennessee Division Fair. The city first said to close the fair after two or three days. They lost a lot of money that year,” said Neely.
But city leaders felt canceling large gatherings and events wasn’t enough.
“For a few weeks it was illegal to have a gathering more than two people in Knoxville. If a police officer saw three people talking on Gay Street he would say, ‘Break it up.’ Furthermore, police were told to arrest anybody who was sneezing without a handkerchief,” explained Neely.
No one knows for sure, but Neely estimates around 140 to 213 people in Knoxville died from the Spanish flu. He says after a few weeks the virus had run its course, “So that when we had Armistice Day celebrations, November 11th, 1918, tens of thousands of people came to downtown Knoxville paraded together, celebrated together.”
After the flu of 1918, city leaders realized we needed more than just Knoxville General Hospital.
“There was a lot of interest in building a new hospital, that’s when the Catholic church got involved and built St. Mary’s Hospital,” said Neely.
In those days information was solely in the newspapers. Neely says Knoxville had two newspapers and they published multiple editions during the day, then newsboys would flood the downtown streets to peddle the information.
Neely says in many ways the headlines then are a reminder, “No man is the island, as the old saying goes but it shows that we’re connected to the whole planet.”
Historians say a hundred years ago, East Tennesseans were used to epidemics. There was smallpox and cholera. Neely says Knoxville had a pestilence house, way out in the woods in East Knoxville, where sick people were quarantined either to get better or pass away.
In 1838, East Tennessee experienced its first deadly epidemic. Historians say we still don’t know what the illness was, but it killed one-tenth of the population of Knoxville.