Florida’s Fight: 1918 flu epidemic wiped out a state poorly equipped to handle an outbreak

Published: Apr. 23, 2021 at 6:55 PM EDT
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This is the second installment in a two-part series on Florida’s role in the First World War. Check out part one here.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - As “The Great War” came to an end, the world was in the middle of another, more deadlier- fight. This time, the enemy was microscopic and a mystery to science.

The 1918 influenza outbreak, commonly known as the Spanish Flu at the time, reached Florida’s shores as soldiers traveled home. Nothing could stop it’s devastating path.

Joe Knetsch is a Tallahassee-based historian who just published a book on Florida’s role in WWI. He said the 1918 virus was deadly, no matter your age.

“If you got the full brunt of it, you had three days,” he said.

Official numbers put the Florida death toll at over 4,000. But Knetsch argues that number is severely underreported.

“You could probably multiply that figure by at least three, sometimes four- and you might come close,” he said.

He said most figures just counted the final four months of 1918, but the virus had already spread- and killed- for months earlier. Certain populations, including African-Americans and poor Whites, often received little medical care and were never counted towards the death toll.

“You would not want to be here,” Knetsch said.

“First of all, one third of your doctors and even more of your nurses weren’t here.”

They were in Europe, treating wounded soldiers on the front lines. But a new front line- at home- soon created an unimaginable death toll.

The worst outbreaks occurred in America’s large cities. Since Florida was still a mostly rural state in 1918, Knetsch said the state’s death toll isn’t among the highest seen. But rural roads made medical treatment nearly impossible to access for much of Florida’s population.

In addition, science still hadn’t fully understood what a virus was, Knetsch said. But masks became commonplace- as did moving events outdoors and keeping a social distance.

Knetsch had already started his research for his book long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but as the world shut down, he immediately noticed the parallels.

And while many of 2020′s large gatherings were called off, end-of-war celebrations went on as planned across the US in 1918.

The Camp Gordon Johnston World War Two Museum in Carrabelle keeps track of Franklin County casualties from every war.

Archivist Lisa Keith-Lucas said three men went to fight in WWI from Apalachicola and never made it home. One was Isaiah Green

“A lot of them stayed in France for reconstruction afterwards and it appear Isaiah Green died of what was likely the Spanish Flu,” she said.

Some soldiers survived the war, only to come home to a loved one who had not survived the virus.

The dread of a global pandemic- coinciding with the horror of a global war- led to a lost generation.

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