How did Birmingham handle the Spanish Flu 100 years ago? Learn more.

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Downtown Birmingham in 1920. Photo via Influenza Archive

A little over a century ago, the world was rocked by the Spanish Flu—a deadly influenza pandemic that lasted from January 1918 to December 1920. Similar to COVID-19, the Spanish Flu eventually made its way to Birmingham. But how did The Magic City deal with one of the deadliest epidemics in recorded history? Find out here.

Don’t worry if you dozed off in history class—here’s a quick lesson.

Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish flu at a hospital ward at Camp Funston in 1918. Photo via Wikipedia

As the First World War drew to a close in 1918, the war-weary peoples of the world suddenly had a new enemy—one they couldn’t see. While the war raged on, wartime media suppressed cases of the virus in their own countries in order to maintain morale. However, they were free to report on the cases in Spain, a neutral country. Thus, the virus got its nickname—the Spanish Flu.

Over the next two years, the Spanish Flu infected over 500 million people, a quarter of the world’s population at the time. By the time it ran its course, the Spanish Flu killed anywhere from 17 million to 50 million people.

The Spanish Flu in Birmingham

Annual Report of the State Board of Health, 1919.

“There is absolutely nothing to the report from Montgomery that there is Spanish influenza in Birmingham or Jefferson County. There are some acute cases of old-fashioned influenza or la grippe.”

Dr. J. D. Dowling, Health Officer for Birmingham and Jefferson County, October 4, 1918.

A few days after Dr. Dowling’s statement, reports indicated that the Spanish Flu was a growing problem in Birmingham. So, he recommended that people stay away from large crowds, especially in confined areas. With Birmingham’s hospitals at full capacity, the city converted Central High School and Colored Industrial High School into emergency hospitals.

Over the next two weeks, new cases began to die down. Birmingham started to open back up—but the Spanish Flu was not done yet. In mid-November, Birmingham experienced a sharp uptick in recorded cases. By December, the city urged citizens to wear gauze masks when out in public. Birmingham also experienced a small resurgence of the virus in January, 1919, but not as severe as the initial experience.

So, How Well Did Birmingham Do?

According to the 1920 census, Birmingham’s population was roughly 178,806. Graph via National Geographic

During the Spanish Flu, cities that encouraged social distancing and isolation saw much lower infection rates. Although we did better than some cities, Birmingham waited a little too late to enforce social distancing—plus, the city returned to normal life too early, allowing the virus to make a comeback in November and January.

Want to learn more about how Birmingham can combat COVID-19? Check out these resources.

How do you think the 1918 Spanish Flu compares to 2020’s COVID-19 outbreak? Tag @bhamnow and let us know!

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Nathan Watson
Tennessee native who fell in love with Birmingham during college. Graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in 2019. Passionate about Birmingham and its continued growth.
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