Lessons Learned from the 1918 Flu Pandemic in Virginia

Mar 25, 2020

The coronavirus crisis is not the first time Virginia has dealt with a major pandemic.

Roanoke was on lockdown. Churches and schools were closed. Theaters, bowling alleys, dance halls and pool halls — they all shut their doors as people isolated themselves in their homes. No the year is not 2020, it was 1918 – and Roanoke was dealing with a massive outbreak of influenza — an outbreak they initially tried to ignore and hope for the best.

“What happened in Roanoke was really just inexcusable,” says historian Garrett Peck. He wrote about the 1918 flu pandemic in the book The Great War in America.

“For example, in Philadelphia there was a big parade that went through the city of soldiers, and they infected everyone," Peck says. "So just like in Roanoke, Philly just has this huge outbreak versus say St. Louis where the public officials closed down all the public facilities.”

This 2005 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows recreated 1918 influenza virions that were collected from a 1918 cell culture.
Credit Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC via AP

Roanoke eventually closed down all public facilities. But it took too long to get there.

Former Roanoke Mayor Nelson Harris wrote about the 1918 flu in his book Hidden History of Roanoke. He explains that the initial reaction failed to understand the gravity of what they were dealing with — especially in the early days when the flu suddenly showed up at Hollins College, now Hollins University, and at a Baptist orphanage and among railroad workers.

“Each of those locations had an outbreak of the Spanish Flu all at the same time basically all on the same weekend, and that’s how the flu arrived in the Roanoke Valley,” he explains.

The local health director in Roanoke decided the best course of action was to essentially do nothing.

“The general idea was that as long as those who had fallen ill were quarantined and kind of kept at the orphanage or at the campus or in their homes that all would be well that this was not something that the public should be concerned about and they did not sense at that time that it was going to be highly contagious," Harris explains.

Well they were wrong about that. And it had dramatic consequences in Roanoke.

“Within really a matter of a week, we began to have between 80 and 100 cases of the Spanish Flu per day," Harris says. "And so it just escalated to where the medical establishment here was absolutely overwhelmed.”

That’s when city leaders finally called for people to essentially shelter in place, avoiding public contact and implementing a strict sense of social distancing. Roanoke was closed for business for about a month before people started returning to public life — just as America was celebrating the end of World War I.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.