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Friday, May 8, 2009

The Great Flu Epidemic of 1918 in Jackson County

By Dale Cox
The recent concern over the outbreak of Swine Flu has resulted in many mentions of the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918. That "pandemic," as health professionals call it, killed between 500,000 and 650,000 Americans and millions of people worldwide. The number of casualties from the flu, in fact, was higher than the number of battle deaths suffered in World War I.
In Jackson County, the flu struck with a fury unlike any other epidemic in the history of the county. Although records are scarce, thousands of Jackson County residents fell ill with what was then called the "Spanish Flu" in the fall of 1918. A report in the Tampa Tribune indicated that half the households in the county had been hit with the flu. Cemeteries in use at the time offer testimony to the deadliness of the outbreak in the form of headstones bearing the date "1918" that can be found from one end of the county to the other.
The best information on the severity of the flu in Jackson County can be found in the records of what is now the Dozier School, then called the "Florida Reform School." A series of reports were filed in December of 1918, explaining the severity of the influenza outbreak at the school and the impact it had on conditions there.
Some of the best details were provided in a letter written by a group of state officials, among them Governor Sidney Catts. They indicated that "of 264 cases of influenza among the boys there were only eleven deaths." Other reports indicate a female employee of the school also died during the epidemic, raising the total death toll at the school to twelve.
The officials gave a telling statement of conditions at the school in response to allegations of abuse made by a Federal health official:
…Did Dr. Klock say that the superintendent was not a well man? That the assistant superintendent, in charge of the colored department, with all his family were stricken? Did he say that one of the matrons died and remained for hours without attention because the few not in bed had to give aid to the living? Did he say that the attending physician, the only doctor on his feet in Marianna and surrounding community had ten times as much to do as any human being could perform? Did he say that the school was without water for lack of help to run the pump, causing the sewers to choke? Did he say that sixty-eight out of sixty-nine white boys and one hundred and ninety-eight colored boys were down practically at one time? Did he say that the dining room…with cement floor, was temporarily converted into a hospital by a physician, to relieve the congestion in their dormitory?..Did he say that the good people of Marianna had been acting as nurses of this institution until the needs of their own families and surroundings took them away?
The flu epidemic in Jackson County continued into 1919, but gradually faded away. Recent studies, however, indicate that its impact was felt in the Deep South for decades to come. Not only did many families lose loved ones, but children still in the womb at the time later suffered from a much higher rate of learning and physical disabilities than children born just one year later.
Editor’s Note: Writer and historian Dale Cox is the author of The History of Jackson County: The Early Years. The book is available at Chipola River Book and Tea in Downtown Marianna and through
www.amazon.com. The second volume in his series on Jackson County, The History of Jackson County: Civil War and Reconstruction, will be released on Memorial Day weekend.

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