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.