Louisville and the 1918 flu: water, war, and nuns

Louisville and the 1918 flu: water, war, and nuns
March 12, 2019

Editors note: This article was written by Steve Hubbs, a Louisville Water Vice President who retired in 2004. He remains an active volunteer in the drinking water community and is a member of the Water Quality & Health Council.

As a child, I spent many hours seeking adventure on the repurposed grounds of Camp Zachary Taylor on the outskirts of Louisville. At the time, my brothers, friends and I had no idea that our stomping ground was the site of an historic drama that unfolded many years earlier at a heady time when world war met pandemic flu.

Camp Taylor was built in 1917 as a large artillery training base for World War I. The federal government chose the site in part based on Louisville’s excellent drinking water. It was a good choice: More than a century ago Louisville Water employed "state-of-the-art" filtration and chlorination to the great benefit of local public health.

It wasn’t long after Camp Taylor was built that an unwelcome "influenza" took up residence in the barracks. The camp was quickly overwhelmed with sick young people.

In their report, "They Buckled on the Armor of God: Kentucky Catholic Sister ‘Nurses’ in the 1918 Flu Pandemic," nurse educators Sara Bolten and MaryAnn Thompson described the role of Kentucky Catholic nuns in caring for the flu-stricken soldiers of Camp Taylor.

"Within a week of the first cases being diagnosed [September 1918]," they wrote, "thousands of soldiers were ill, and the base hospital was quickly overwhelmed. By the end of September, 20 percent of the barracks had been converted to emergency hospitals, and urgent appeals went out for additional nurses."

Bolten and Thompson wrote of Chaplain Regis Barrett who doggedly rounded up 88 sisters from the region to care for the sick of Camp Taylor.

Father Barrett’s unorthodox methods included breaking the lock and hinge of a convent screen door when his knock went unanswered, demanding to know how many nurses he could take back to the camp immediately.

The women who answered the call worked tirelessly during 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. At least 22 sisters fell ill. Some would suffer lasting ailments, but only one, Sister Mary Jean Connor, S.L., died of the flu. She was given a military funeral at the camp.

Some scientists think the flu virus evolved in the trenches of World War I into the virulent killer it became. It traveled with the soldiers, thrived in close quarters and infected civilian communities. Bolten and Thompson noted that as the flu spread in Louisville, public funerals were banned, homes of the sick were quarantined and schools, churches and public events were closed. Despite these measures, they reported that the city tallied at least 6,700 cases of flu and 577 deaths between September and November 1918.

Ironically, Louisville’s healthy water was a factor in situating a major training camp in our midst, which in turn precipitated a local outbreak of a global killer flu. Nevertheless, when world war met pandemic flu, some of Louisville’s finest, 88 brave nuns, showed us what you do when your community needs you.