As the world deals with the new reality of living amongst the COVID-19 virus, it is hard not to think back to the last time a pandemic occurred in Ohio. More than a century ago the 1918 pandemic killed 50 million people worldwide and changed the face of modern medicine forever. In Highland County, the 1918 “Spanish flu” or “The Grip” had some notable parallels to the current pandemic.
The first instance of the flu in Ohio back then likely came from soldiers coming back from World War I. The men happily returned from Europe, bringing the deadly virus to their wives and children back in America. The result was a massive pandemic even reaching to Highland County, where overwhelmed citizens panicked as their friends and family became ill.
There were numerous waves to the 1918 H1N1 pandemic. The first was very mild and resulted in very few deaths. The second wave, however, had symptoms that were actually very similar to COVID-19 — coughing, fever and occasional gastrointestinal disturbances were observed. The second wave of influenza targeted healthy, younger adults, turning the skin blue and filling their lungs with fluid until they died only hours or days after showing symptoms.
In just one year, the U.S. life expectancy plunged a dozen years.
The local papers at the time printed a lot of misinformation about the flu. Some newspapers pointed fingers at the Germans, suggesting they created and distributed the virus using U-boats. In the earlier months, some people didn’t take the disease seriously. Dr. Gordan Henry Hirshburg, an optimistic journalist from Cincinnati, wrote: “Fortunately, our enormous progress in medicine and our material resources for combating disease give assurance that no plague epidemic of such magnitude as those of the past can occur in America at the present time.”
Unfortunately for Hirshburg, this line would prove to be wildly inaccurate.
In Highland County, local doctors were overwhelmed with patients. Barrett’s Mill in Rainsboro was used as an emergency hospital as beds filled with young men, women and children. Highland County’s Doctor Boyd took charge of the scene, treating the flu victims and enacting quarantine measures for others.
In Cincinnati, orders for public gatherings to shut down contributed to the slow of the disease. Suspected carriers of the influenza virus were isolated and asked to remain home for an indefinite amount of time. For the most part, Cincinnati and the state of Ohio dealt with the 1918 flu better than most American cities. The exact death count of both Ohio and Highland County are unknown, but are estimated to be significantly less than other U.S. cities such as Philadelphia and New York City, both which were hit hard by the pandemic.
When the pandemic was over in the United States, families all over the country were devastated with the loss of family members and friends. Despite the tragedy, scientists and health organizations learned a lot from studying the strains of virus that caused the disease and it helped them prepare for outbreaks in the future.
Sources: https://www.history.com/news/1918-spanish-flu-mask-wearing-resistance#&gid=ci025cc549b0002738&pid=ad-5; https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/historical-images.htm; http://chapsgs.com/greenfield/barretts_mill.htm; and https://www.newspapers.com/image/34194328/?clipping_id=48361076.
Isabella Warner is a stringer for The Times-Gazette.