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Influenza probably reached Arkansas during late September. By early October, state officials were noting that “serious epidemics have been reported from several points.” Most Arkansans lived in rural districts and these were overwhelmingly hard hit by the pandemic.

Black and white panoramic image of buildings and tents at Camp Pike, Arkansas
Young adults were especially vulnerable to the 1918 influenza virus and military camps, such as Camp Pike, were overwhelmed with patients.[Credit: The Library of Congress]

Fearing panic, officials were originally reluctant to admit that the pandemic posed a serious threat. James C. Geiger, a commissioned officer for the Public Health Service who was stationed in the state, downplayed the threat to Arkansans with reassuring statements even after he himself had caught the flu and his wife died from it.

By October, the Arkansas Board of Health was forced to put the state under quarantine. In Pulaski County, home to Little Rock, the quarantine was not lifted until November 4th. Across the state, public schools remained closed even after the quarantine had been lifted. Children under eighteen were confined to their homes until December.

The increased mobility of people in wartime and the comparative lack of immunity among back country dwellers meant that the epidemic swept through many communities. The central part of the state was hit first in late September, but Pettigrew escaped the scourge through the end of October. Charles Crawford reported not a single case in the town on the 25th, but shortly thereafter a public gathering at the Pettigrew school spread the virus so thoroughly that in the space of one weekend not enough people remained well to administer to the sick. A survivor recalled only two deaths in the town during the epidemic, but the 1918 influenza pandemic probably left many people in a dangerously weakened state in which they were vulnerable to a range of diseases.

Segregation meant African-Americans suffering from influenza were treated only by African-American caregivers. Limited numbers of African-American physicians meant that many people suffering from influenza were unable to obtain the services of a physician or nurse. Additionally, as African-Americans were also more likely to suffer from poverty, they tended to be more vulnerable to disease and to die in larger numbers from influenza and related diseases. While records on the deaths of Arkansas’ African-American citizens were poorly kept, it is clear that they died in very high numbers.

In the state’s two military camps, Camp Eberts in Lonoke County and Camp Pike in Pulaski County, the disease was widespread. Camp Pike was sealed and quarantined and the camp commander insisted that the names of the dead not be released in an attempt to still panic. Across the state, more Arkansans died from influenza in 1918-1919 than died fighting in World War One.

The disease slowly declined during the late fall of 1918 and it ultimately disappeared from the state in the early spring of 1919.

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