The 1918/19 “Spanish Flu” took millions of lives worldwide and remains the worse influenza pandemic in history. The transmission of the flu, as well as the morbidity and mortality, were increased due to the conditions of World War I. In September 1918, the first cases of flu appeared at Camp Zachary Taylor, Louisville, which at the time was one of the largest US Army training camps. Within one week of the first cases being diagnosed, over 1700 soldiers were stricken, and the base hospital was quickly overwhelmed. Urgent appeals for nurses were printed in the Louisville papers, but the response was poor as the state was already suffering from a shortage of health care professionals due to the war. A Roman Catholic chaplain at the base requested help from several orders of Kentucky nuns, and they quickly responded despite considerable personal risk, and the fact that few of them were trained nurses. Camp Taylor was one of the few military bases where Catholic sisters were used as “nurses”. It is likely that the care and vigilant observation provided by the sisters contributed to saving many lives.
Sara Bolten, MSN, RN, CNE has taught in the nursing program at McKendree University for the past 20 years. Mary Ann Thompson, DrPH, RN is a retired nurse educator and independent researcher. The authors have previously completed research on the work of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth as “nurses” in the converted hospitals in Louisville during the Civil War. They are currently researching the work of Catholic sisters in the Eastern Kentucky mining camps during the 1918 flu epidemic.
Photo courtesy of the University of Louisville Photographic Archives.