Influenza first appeared in Kentucky about September 27th. On that date, troops traveling from Texas on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad stopped off in Bowling Green. There, soldiers left the train to explore the city. They infected several local citizens before returning to the train and traveling on.
|Base Hospital, Camp Zachary Taylor, Ky. [Credit: The Library of Congress]|
When the flu appeared in Louisville, local officials did not submit a report for the cases which they had. Yet the situation in Louisville clearly dire, as the Public Health Service calculated that the city had about 1,000 cases during late September. The decision by the PHS to calculate Louisville's figures is unusual. Generally, the PHS did not calculate mortality or morbidity numbers for different cities. Their decision to do do for Lousville probably indicates that there were a significant number of cases in the city by that time.
By the second and third week of the epidemic, Louisville was experiencing about 180 deaths a week from influenza. The situation continued to be bad throughout the fall and into December. On December 12th, a local health officer sent a telegram to Surgeon General Rupert Blue requesting that the PHS take charge of the city until the epidemic passed.
A military camp located near Louisville, Camp Taylor, was harder hit than the city itself. This was because the disease tended to strike younger people more aggressively. Enlisted men at the camp totaled approximately 40,000 soldiers. These men were from Kentucky and Indiana. During the week of October 19th, there were 3,772 cases at Camp Taylor alone, which would indicate an extremely high rate of infection.
|Camp Zachary Taylor. (Spelled) by placing soldiers in shape of letters] c.1919 [Credit: The Library of Congress]|
Lexington was not as hard hit as other areas of the state. It was, for example, significantly less hard hit than Louisville. However, the situation there, as across the state, was still serious. On October 6th, the Kentucky state board was forced to issue a state-wide proclamation closing "all places of amusement, schools, churches and other places of assembly."
Overall, the PHS said that "the situation in central and western Kentucky remained good but...the situation in Carter, Breathitt and Harlan Counties and around the mining camps was bad."
In Webster County, Doy Lee Lovan said that the impact of the flu epidemic was especially dramatic as it was combined with a smallpox epidemic there. One person from every house on his street died as a result of one disease or the other.
In Pike County, Kentucky, a miner noted that "It was the saddest lookin' time then that ever you saw in your life. My brother lived over there in the camps then and I was working over there and I was dropping cars onto the team pole. And that, that epidemic broke out and people went to dyin' and there just four and five dyin' every night dyin' right there in the camps, every night. And I began goin' over there, my brother and all his family took down with it, what'd they call it, the flu? Yeah, 1918 flu. And, uh, when I'd get over there I'd ride my horse and, and go over there in the evening and I'd stay with my brother about three hours and do what I could to help 'em. And every one of them was in the bed and sometimes Doctor Preston would come while I was there, he was the doctor. And he said "I'm a tryin' to save their lives but I'm afraid I'm not going to."And they were so bad off. And, and every, nearly every porch, every porch that I'd look at had--would have a casket box a sittin' on it. And men a diggin' graves just as hard as they could and the mines had to shut down there wasn't a nary a man, there wasn't a, there wasn't a mine arunnin' a lump of coal or runnin' no work. Stayed that away for about six weeks."
The pandemic peaked in the fall of 1918 but influenza remained prevalent throughout the state during the winter and spring of 1919.