Pandemic Nursing: The 1918 Influenza Outbreak

In honor of National Nurses Month, we’re turning the spotlight on the work of nurses during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Today’s post comes from Jen Hivick, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri.

The 1918 influenza pandemic, also known as the “Spanish Flu” because newspapers in Spain were some of the first to report on the outbreak, was one of the deadliest events in the 20th century. In a two-year span beginning in 1918, an estimated 20 to 50 million people across the world died from the disease. No region or country was safe, including the United States. In fact, like many of the countries fighting in World War I at the time, the military training camps across the country made it easier for the outbreak to spread among both service members and the general public. 

By August 1918, the Army Nurse Corps had recruited an estimated 21,000 nurses because of World War I needs. Over half of these nurses had already set sail for Europe by the time the influenza pandemic began to rage through the U.S. This left the United States unprepared for the illness and death that began to overwhelm the country in September 1918. As death tolls began to rise in cities like Boston, one of the first large U.S. cities to be affected by the outbreak, public officials worried that there were not enough nurses to deal with the millions of ill people. 

The United States Government told the American Red Cross, the preeminent humanitarian organization at the time, to recruit more nurses across the nation who could be sent wherever there was need. In addition to placing newspaper ads, the Red Cross also sent word to hospitals that all nurses who were not helping the war effort or working critical care cases were needed immediately. The need was so dire that, although they preferred trained nurses, they advertised that they would take nurses still in training as well. At the disease’s peak, they even asked for help from anyone who had taken even a single Red Cross nursing course.

Nurses across the United States rose to the occasion. They volunteered en masse for the American Red Cross and were willing to go wherever the organization needed them. The nurses considered the pandemic their own war at home and believed they had to do everything they could to help prevent more deaths.

Although there wasn’t a cure for the disease, doctors and nurses recognized that time and rest was the best treatment. Nurses did their best to keep patients calm, lessen their fevers, and monitor their health so that they did not acquire any secondary infections. It was long, arduous work, but most nurses did it gladly. 

Some nurses were sent to military training camps; some were sent to small islands off the coast of Alaska; some were sent to rural villages; and some were sent to cities like New York City. They were needed everywhere across the country, and they believed it was their duty to answer that call.

One nurse, Aileen Stewart Cole, had been waiting for months in hopes that she would be called up by the Army Nursing Corps and made a military nurse. At the time, the Army Nursing Corps did not employ Black nurses, and she was instead assigned by the Red Cross to a small mining town in West Virginia. She was told that miners “were dropping like flies” across the state, and that her service was needed to help keep miners healthy so they could continue to work. 

She and the other nurses were not able to do much—this was before influenza vaccinations, so their work was primarily centered on making sure patients were comfortable and attended to—but the Army Nursing Corps took notice of her performance. By November, as the need for nurses in Army camps continued unabated, she was offered a position in the Army Nurse Corps and became one of the first Black women to join the organization. 

By the spring of 1919, the pandemic had largely abated, although there were occasional outbreaks during the following year. As American troops, including the nurses in the Army Nurse Corps, returned to the United States, many nurses went back to the jobs they had before the pandemic. These jobs had been left open for them in part because nursing was seen as a job for women; returning servicemen were not a risk to their employment. 

The outbreak left its scars on the nursing profession, however. Thousands of nurses took ill during the pandemic, and hundreds of nurses died. Military nurses, even those who did not serve overseas, were considered to have died in the line of duty. American Red Cross nurses were equally admired, and those who gave their lives were lauded as heroes who went to work even while knowing they could die from the disease at any time. They are still remembered in nursing history and were truly heroes. 

For more on nursing, this time during the Civil War, see an earlier post on Little Women in the Civil War

Monday is Memorial Day, which honors those who died while serving in the U.S. military, including nurses. Visit the National Archives website for more information and related resources. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *