Remembering the Spanish flu epidemic in Cecil County

Nurses in Elkton in 1919.

Nurses in Elkton in 1919. Image courtesy Historical Society of Cecil County.

This is the time of year when everyone seems to be coming down with something and flu season is in full swing. From the files, I came across some research about the Spanish flu epidemic in Cecil County, Md., nearly 100 years ago. This was going to be a chapter in “Delmarva Legends and Lore” but it never quite came together.

The Spanish flu that struck worldwide in 1918-19 is often cited as the deadliest outbreak of the disease in modern times. An estimated 20 million to 50 million people died of the flu or complications such as pneumonia.

Even rural Cecil County was affected, with Spanish flu hitting hardest in the fall of 1918 into early 1919. All told, the Spanish flu or the pneumonia that was a secondary infection killed 157 Cecil County residents.

According to an article by Greg Birney in the Fall 2003 Cecil Historical Journal, Spanish flu became so rampant that the Cecil County Board of Health ordered all public gatherings suspended. Schools around the county, including West Nottingham Academy, were closed. Nearby Delaware College (now the University of Delaware) was turned into a hospital, according to Birney, with 135 cases of flu among the 425 students. (Interestingly, several cases of the most recent flu were reported at UD.)

The flu struck at the height of World War I, but the draft was canceled in Cecil County rather than send local sons to be among the 24,000 young men who died of Spanish flu in military camps nationwide.

In Philadelphia, the city experienced its deadliest day on record, with 289 people dying of the flu on Oct. 6, 1918.

The death rate from Spanish flu and pneumonia here in Cecil County was smaller, but no less tragic for the community. All through October 1918, the front page of the Cecil Democrat newspaper was filled with the obituaries of local people claimed by the epidemic.

The Cecil County Board of Health reported: “… a number of patients critically ill, with our list of physicians greatly reduced by war service, and several of those left in the county themselves suffering from influenza, the situation is exceedingly grave …”

From the death reports in the Cecil Democrat, it is clear that the disease did not just attack the old and frail. Most of the death notices were for Cecil County residents in their teens, 20s and 30s. For example, the Cecil Democrat of Oct. 5, 1918 carried an obituary for William P. Rowan, 36, of Elkton, a former farmer and lately employed “at the new Government plant at Perryville.”

The flu victims included Miss Maud S. Winchester, 34, of Frenchtown, and John Dawson of Perryville, 42. Many of the working men who died left behind wives and children, which meant a devastating loss on an emotional and financial level. Without a strong family support system, poverty might loom after the death of the breadwinner.

News also filtered home of local men who died of flu while serving in the military. The Cecil Democrat reported the fate of one soldier from Elkton, Sgt. Frank C. Groetzinger, age 25, who succumbed at Camp Greenleaf in Georgia.

The epidemic in Cecil County ended by late February 1919, with the Spanish flu virus disappearing as mysteriously as it had arrived.

(Thanks to the Historical Society of Cecil County for help with researching this article. The Cecil Democrat from 1918 is available there on microfilm.)

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