Nurses who died taking care of patients during the 1918-1920 flu epidemic
Two North Carolina nurses lost their lives while volunteering their services during the 1918 pandemic
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 worked long hours in primitive conditions in emergency hospitals to care for flu patients. At least 2 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.
It is thought the first North Carolina nurse to die in the “Spanish Flu” pandemic was Bessie Corinna Roper. She was born on December 2, 1888 in Morganton. The 1910 census show her as a trained nurse at Rutherford Hospital, but it is more likely she was a student in the new Rutherford Hospital School of Nursing. Soon after graduation Roper moved to Asheville and worked as a private duty nurse. She accepted a private duty case in Chapel Hill in 1918. By early October of that year, many UNC students and staff became ill and several died. Nurse Roper, seeing the need, 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. The only lasting memorial to her occurred in 1923, when the Chapel Hill Chapter of the American Red Cross presented a silver tea service to the university’s infirmary in honor of Nurse Roper.
Nurse Lucy Bragg Page of Raleigh died only 8 days after Bessie Roper while volunteering to nurse students at NC State University (NCSU). Page was born on October 13, 1881 in Raleigh. She was the daughter of North Carolina’s Secretary of State, Rufus Page and a 1910 graduate of Petersburg General Hospital School of Nursing in Petersburg, Virginia. After graduation she returned home and became a private duty nurse. She served as treasurer of the Raleigh Nurse Association. In October 1918, half of the student body of NCSU became ill and 13 died of the flu. An additional 288 Raleigh residents died in the same month. Page first volunteered at the college where she became ill with the flu. After she recovered, she began volunteering at the segregated white-only Red Cross Emergency Hospital in the Raleigh High School. She soon relapsed and died on October 31, 1918.
The deaths of Page and Elizabeth Riddick, a beloved office worker at NCSU who also died while nursing NCSU students were commemorate in a Nurses Memorial water fountain at the county courthouse. An inscription read:
TO THE VOLUNTEER NURSES / ELIZA RIDDICK AND LUCY PAGE / WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES / AND OUR OTHER NOBLE WOMEN / WHO RISKED THEIR LIVES / IN MINISTRY TO THE VICTIMS OF INFLUENZA / RALEIGH AND CAMP POLK, 1918.
Sadly the fountain was removed during the construction of a new courthouse in 1967-68. Its whereabouts remain unknown.
In addition to nurses Roper and Page, Lillian Marion Johnson, a nursing student at Waynesville Hospital also died while taking care of influenza patients in October 1918. Funds were raised to dedicate a patient room in her honor at the hospital. A newspaper article reporting on the dedication ceremony of reported:
Like a scythe, it cut down Lucy Page, 37, and Eliza Riddick, 24, two Raleigh volunteers who tended flu-stricken students at N.C. State University. It also snuffed the life of Bessie Roper, 29, of Asheville, a volunteer who nursed flu-stricken students at UNC>
The State Journal
Raleigh, North Carolina
01 Nov 1918, Fri • Page 11