Introduction

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A gymnasium hospital during the influenza epidemic, 1918. Courtesy of the University of Kentucky via the Kentucky Digital Library.

In spring of 1918, the first wave of "Spanish Flu" reached US shores through widespread infections in military camps around the country. Men and women of the medical community were at the forefront of this growing crisis. The war in Europe meant an increase in the number of men in the military ranks, but also the number of doctors enlisted to care for them. By 1918, it was estimated that 30 percent of all American physicians were in military service. While this number was crucial to sustaining the military, it left a wide gap in civilian medical coverage.

This gap would be felt most profoundly in the fall of 1918, during the second, deadlier wave of the influenza outbreak.  Hospitals and staff were pushed to their limits with homefront care, often leaving only medical students and volunteers to help with the sick.  To assist where the need was greatest, the American Red Cross recruited a total of 15,000 nurses (ranging from students to women who took the "Red Cross Home Hygiene Course") to serve both civilians and the military. Of these, at least 223 nurses and five dietitians died while providing care to flu victims.