Published December 20, 2003

The World's Greatest Epidemic


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Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas.

To those who have lost loved ones, today's flu epidemic is the worst ever. However, in the scope of history, it doesn't hold a candle to the pandemic of 1918.

The worldwide outbreak of the "Spanish Flu" in 1918 swept the world's continents killing as many as 40 million before it subsided. In terms of number killed, it remains the greatest epidemic in history. The mortality rate in the United States was greater than two in every hundred who caught the disease. Elsewhere the rate was much higher. 

The influenza of 1918 was a particularly rapid spreading variety that first appeared in the nation's ports of entry. It quickly engulfed the country and of the 675,000 Americans who died from it, death came quickly in the form of pneumonia. 

It was reported that apparently healthy people, on their way to work, would suddenly be struck with the illness and be dead within hours. An anecdotal story tells of four ladies meeting to play bridge and by the next morning, three of them had died of the flu.

Doctors of the era lacked the necessary medicines to deal with the epidemic and it's devastation became so commonplace that innocent children skipped rope to the morbid rhyme...

I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
And in-flu-enza.

In our area the US Army's Camp Sherman, in Chillicothe was heavily impacted. The camp's nurse corps of 100 were not prepared for the 8000 troops who became infected with the disease. The outbreak claimed over 1000 of Camp Sherman's troops.

Closer to home the woolen mill near south of Rainsboro was converted into a temporary hospital to deal with local residents.

I don't know the extent of the influenza in Greenfield but I'm sure we suffered just as the nation and the world suffered.

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Soldiers in front of Warner house on Paint Street on Chillicothe Day, 1917. Photo of the Barrett Woolen Mill which was located on Barrett's Mill Rd. along Factory Branch Creek. Later used as a hospital for treating victims of the 1918 flu epidemic that eventually killed over 40 million persons world-wide.
Click photos to enlarge.