Nurse Casualties of the Influenza Epidemic 1918-1920

Nurse Casualties of the Influenza Epidemic 1918-1920
Influenza Epidemic

From 1918 to 1921 successive waves of a novel H1N1 influenza virus killed tens of millions of people around the globe. This disease is often referred to as the Spanish Flu. That pandemic first appeared in North Carolina in Wilmington on September 19, 1918. In less than a week, there were more than 500 cases in the city. During the next few weeks, the disease spread throughout the state. Cities and towns shuttered schools, churches, movie theaters and other public places. Warnings appeared in newspapers advising people to wash their hands, to use Vicks VapoRub as a chest salve, and to put Vaseline in their noses to trap germs. An October 26, 1918, issue of Extension Farm-News warned against shopping in person and sharing items such as drinking cups, silverware, and toothpicks, and ended with this advice: “Avoid kissing, especially on the lips.” Despite these efforts over 13,500 North Carolinians died during the pandemic.

In 1918, during the first wave of the pandemic, hundreds of North Carolina nurses were away from home, serving as Army and Navy nurses in World War 1. With a depleted workforce, hundreds of nurses on the homefront worked long hours in primitive conditions in emergency hospitals to care for flu patients. At least 6 of these nurses lost their lives while volunteering to help others. Their sacrifice has been all but forgotten, but now that we are facing another pandemic, their names and deeds should be honored. Here is a list followed by more detailed information.

1. Bessie Roper from Morganton died while volunteering to nurse students at UNC-Chapel Hill.
2. Lucy Page from Raleigh died in Raleigh while volunteering at the Emergency Hospital.
3. Etta May Perkins from Morganton died while serving as a US Army nurse at Camp Meade, MD
4. Lillian Johnson from Loris SC/died while a student nurse in Waynesville, NC
5. Laura Rouseasu from Salisbury - only African American nurse documented to have died while nursing flu patients (so far).
6. Alyce (Alice) Baker from Ayden
6. Sybil (Sibby) Kelly from Union County, SC worked and died in Wilmington.

One of the first nurses to die was Bessie Corinna Roper. She was born on December 2, 1888 in Morganton. She graduated from Rutherford Hospital School of Nursing around 1910. Soon after graduation Roper moved to Asheville and became a private duty nurse. She accepted a case in Chapel Hill in 1918. By early October of that year, many UNC students and staff became ill and several died from the “Spanish Flu”. Roper volunteered much of her free time at the University Infirmary. Several of the students she nursed recovered, but sadly she succumbed to the disease on October 22, 1918. Her obituary appeared in many papers in the state lauding her selfless and noble sacrifice and likened her death to those of soldiers fighting on the battlefields of WWI. She was buried with military honors. Roper’s only lasting memorial was a silver tea service the Chapel Hill Chapter of the American Red Cross presented to the UNC infirmary in her honor in 1923.

Newspaper Clippings

Compiled by: 
Phoebe Pollitt