Americus Times-Recorder, October 10, 1918.
The Struggles of Legitimate Medicine
During the 1918 flu pandemic, perhaps no industry struggled more than the healthcare industry. The pandemic brought confusion, resulting in a mild, and eventually severe, panic. Doctors struggled to understand the virus as the death toll rose. Cases appeared to emerge spontaneously, and before many cities knew, the virus overwhelmed their resources. Smaller towns like Americus first viewed the pandemic as something that would miss them even as it raged elsewhere. But nothing could stop what was coming. Small town doctors neglected the need to take precautions before a major outbreak arose. Instead, towns were rocked by the virus and responded with curfews and mask requirements too late.
Medical professionals tried to keep up. House-calling doctors were pillars of the community and did their best under trying circumstances. The Windsor Pharmacy offered an array of modern medicines to ease symptoms.
Americus Times-Recorder, December 10, 1918.
Predatory Snake Oils
The pandemic, while a catastrophe to most, was a blessing to some. Quack doctors and greedy medicine men prayed upon a panicking public in order to peddle "cures" for influenza. For decades, these entrepreneurs asserted that their patented medicines would help their body fight back against an array of afflictions. As the death toll rose, the public began to turn to these medicines to treat the flu. The newspapers became filled with ads for various tonics and tinctures that promised miracles. While most of these "cures" did little in the way of combating the flu, the public was clinging to any sense of hope they could find. Fear became a source of income and business was good.
Physicians in the Americus City Directory, 1916. Black physicians were denoted with an *.
Inequality was Deadly
While the flu of 1918 affected people from all walks of life, the disease compounded other inequalities. There was one hospital in Americus in 1918; while African Americans cooked and cleaned the building, they were not allowed to receive treatment there. In a county that was nearly 50% black, there were many more white physicians than Black physicians.
Amid the pandemic, healthcare inequalities became even more apparent. African Americans and poor whites were more likely to live in crowded homes. This close proximity would prove to be a perfect environment for viral spread. Poverty also made adherence to public health guidelines more difficult. Domestic workers and sharecroppers risked losing a job if they stayed home. In an era of vagrancy laws, losing one's job could be grounds for arrest.
Only fragmentary death records exist, but these records suggest that the pandemic hit the African American community much harder than the white community. Of available death records in January, February, and March 1919, nearly two thirds of influenza victims were Black.
Americus City Hospital (white), built in 1913.
“‘Flu’ Reported In Americus At Meeting Of Doctors Wednesday,” The Americus Times-Recorder (Americus, GA), Oct. 10, 1918.
“ ‘A Splendid Tonic’,” The Americus Times-Recorder (Americus, GA), Aug. 19, 1918.
African American struggles during influenza pandemic
For my project I wanted to focus on the impact of the influenza’s epidemic in the African American community living in Americus at that time. I was assigned to look at the medical aspect of the pandemic and the more I thought about this and speaking with Dr. Kutzler I realized that there were aspects of this that were actual personal to me as an Afro-Caribbean man. Issues related to access of health care are still problematic for many people of color today. That is why I chose to focus on African Americans during the 1917 epidemic, because the existing information demonstrates that segregation generally, and in health care access specifically, has significantly affected African Americans in Americus.
Segregation in the South
Segregation impacted all aspects of life for people of color. It dictated where they could live, where their children went to school, where they could shop and work and for this discussion how they were able to access healthcare. Black churches played a role in creating community because that is where people came together to get support. They were not able to access other forms of support due to race.
Meeting in Macon February 10th
Dr. D.F Bond, the Public health commissioner, was invited to a conference of physicians and health officials of Georgia which was held in Macon, Georgia. He talked about how it was nice it was to go learn about the other health care professionals’ theories on the influenza outbreak and how they were take action to stop the spread of the disease and minimize the number of deaths. After returning to Americus and seeing the state the community was in with the ongoing pandemic and how bad it had gotten, He believed it “permissible to life and started the ban on gathering in Americus".
Also discussed at this conference that Dr. Bond found interesting was information about the vaccine. At this time there were no reported deaths among those who had received it . Yet they still had to remain in there homes to minimize there risk of exposure because the physicians in Americus were overwhelmed with patients.
Even though doctors and other health officials met to make a plan to prevent the spread of influenza, stereotypes influenced how people thought about risk for African Americans. For example, it was commonly believed at the time that because of how poorly African American's living situations were and that they lived in unsanitary housing conditions. Because of this people believed that the immune systems of African Americans were better equipped to prevent infection as they already came in contact with many germs. In reality what happened was if African Americans became infected they were more likely to die, which was similar to what we saw with Covid.
Due to segregation, African Americans were limited to the types of treatment they could receive. They were only able to receive treatment in spaces or locations designated specifically for people of color. specifically because of segregation they were unable to be treated in regular hospital.
African Americans treatment during the pandemic
As noted above, segregation in the south was a very real barrier. African Americans had more limited options for preventing exposure to influenza because they did a lot of the work that could be considered essential. For example, they worked in the fields and other forms of food production as well as performed the majority of manual labor at the time. Therefore it was not easy for them to receive treatment do to the limited number of colored hospitals . In Americus it was even worse because there were no colored hospital located there. That meant that they could not go see a physician when they were sick and only way that could get treated was during house calls made by African American nurses. These nurses did not have nearly as many resources as hospitals and relied mostly on home remedies to try and treat illness including influenza. This created a very dangerous situation for these nurses because they were exposing themselves to illness with-ought the sanitary conditions found in hospitals. This lack of access to available medical treatment at that time made African Americans more likely to die during the influenza pandemic.
Why does this matter?
It is important to learn about history because we learn from it lessons of what works and what does not. A common expression that is used to describe history is that we study it so we remember all of the things that went wrong so that we do not continue to make the same mistakes. It is important that we lear from the past and make better choices. In the case of the influenza pandemic in Americus we learn that all people , regardless of race, deserve equal access to healthcare.
1. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (2022). Slavery in the Americas. Retrieved May 6, 2022 from http://slaveryandremembrance.org/articles/article/?id=A0011
2. Blumenthal, P. (2022) Yet Again, A Judicial Counterrevolution Looks to Chain the Country to An Imagined Past. Retrieved May 5, 2022 from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/scott-alito-roe-v-wade_n_6274013be4b046ad0d7964f4
3. Kutzler, E. (2022) Americus Times course handout.