Mississippi was not immune to worldwide influenza pandemic that struck in 1918–19, killing as many as forty million people around the globe. The Spanish flu reached the state in September 1918 and was acute for only a little over a month, but by the end of the year, 6,219 Mississippians had died, most of them infants and adults aged twenty-five to thirty-five. Adams and Sunflower Counties had the highest death rates, while George and Stone Counties had the lowest rates. The epidemic peaked in Mississippi on 22 October, when 9,842 new cases were reported. The incidence of disease subsequently declined gradually, with a brief recurrence in January 1919.
As in the rest of the United States, the epidemic began on Mississippi’s military bases. Officials at the Extra-Cantonment Zone at Payne Field in West Point telegraphed the State Board of Health regarding the appearance and rapid spread of the disease. By the end of the first week in October, Dr. W. S. Leathers, the board’s executive officer, ordered all county health officers to close public meetings, public schools, and “places of amusement” in towns where cases of influenza appeared. However, educational institutions that housed their students were asked to remain open and restrict the students to campus. In spite of community protest, county fairs were suspended. The State Board of Health subsequently imposed further restrictions on public gatherings, ordering funerals to be held privately and banning the practice of taking bodies into churches.
In the second week of October, the situation became more serious. Meridian alone reported at least one hundred new flu cases each day. People were not sure how to recognize or prevent the illness and panicked at its rapid onset and tendency to progress to pneumonia and at the increasing number of deaths. Whole families became ill, and neighbors rendering aid were likely to succumb. Parents began to demand the return of children boarding at school, either out of fear for their health or out of a need for help in nursing family members at home. The US Public Health Service sent seventeen doctors and twenty-four nurses to Mississippi, but the state still faced a shortage of medical assistance. Dr. Leathers asked Red Cross chapters in the state to organize and train women to assist in the emergency.
The disease had begun to abate in many communities by the end of October. Clergy, school boards, and business owners pushed the State Board of Health to rescind the regulations restricting public gatherings. Many schools reopened, and church services resumed during the first week of November. However, because the disease was especially prevalent in black communities, black schools remained closed.
Newspapers in Jackson reported the discovery and testing of an influenza vaccine in New York on 4 October, but the vaccine did not reach Mississippi until mid-November. The US Public Health Service tested it at Brookhaven’s Whitworth College, which had remained free of influenza throughout the epidemic.
- John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (2004)
- Mississippi State Board of Health, Report of the Board of Health of Mississippi from July 1, 1917 to June 30, 1919 (1919)
- Mississippi State Medical Association, Transactions of the Mississippi State Medical Association (1919)