Influenza is a contagious disease caused by a virus, a tiny infectious agent that replicates inside the living cells of organisms. Viruses can be spread between humans by contact, coughing, and sneezing. There is a seasonal flu occurring annually in the colder months that is usually mild and self-limiting. But occasionally, there will be a new stain, often named for the place of its first observation. The most virulent can create almost universal epidemics or pandemics.
There have been nine generally recognized influenza pandemics in the last 300 years. The first to be widely reported in the Tuscaloosa area was the Russian Flu pandemic of 1889-1893. This outbreak was remarkable for spreading across the northern hemisphere in just five months—a feat some researchers attribute to increased intercontinental travel and widespread rail access across America.
On January 21, 1892, the West Alabama Breeze, a local newspaper, carried an article grimly titled “The Death Angel.” It listed the influenza deaths of seven people, some of whom were Hezekier Cobb, Jake Raiford, and Mrs. Green Williams. A week earlier, seven other victims were reported, including Mr. and Mrs. A. W. Dyer, Mr. and Mrs. William Slayton, and a child named Perkins. Later that winter, the deaths of Sam Hinton and Leopold Cohn were attributed to influenza. The actual toll of the Russian Flu (as well as other pandemics) will likely never be known due to misdiagnoses and underreporting, however, it has been estimated that as many as 70,000 Americans died and perhaps one to two million worldwide.
Nearly a quarter century later, during the First World War, a new virus appeared. The first major outbreak was in Spain; thus, it became known as the “Spanish Flu.” Unlike the usual seasonal flu, this virus was remarkably lethal; especially to the 20 to 40-year-old age group that is not usually severely affected.
The first American outbreak was at an Army camp in Kansas. It quickly spread and paralyzed communities nationwide. The State Board of Health (now known as the Alabama Department of Public Health) Annual Report for 1919 estimated that perhaps 20,000 Alabamians died from influenza during the years 1917 to 1919. It has been estimated that during that period as many as 500 deaths occurred in Tuscaloosa County, with perhaps 100 or more of those in the city. Total American deaths have been estimated at 675,000, while the world’s death toll may have reached from 50 to 100 million – or perhaps 3% to 5% of mankind.
A few of those dying locally included 14-month old Frances Patton, Basel Manley Sartain, W. A. Holley, and University of Alabama students Thomas Pennington and Milton McLeod.
Young men in the military, especially those in crowded camps, were hard hit. During World War I, 22 University of Alabama alumni died in military service. The deaths of five were attributed to influenza. They included Brown Gaston, Herbert Higgins, Paul Jones, Charles Searcy, and Lester Snow. Former UA military instructor Major Tobe C. Cope succumbed to the disease in France.
Since the Spanish Flu, three other pandemics have occurred; the Asian Flu in 1957-58, Hong Kong Flu in 1969, and Swine Flu in 2009. These events were devastating, but they pale in comparison to the toll exacted during the years 1917 to 1919.
Influenza immunization is now widely available. However, development and distribution of strain specific vaccines can take far longer that the time required for a virus to spread. Because of almost universal air travel, new strains could easily spread globally in a few days, or even overnight. Prevention of influenza pandemics is a high priority for medical authorities worldwide.