By Marnie McAllister, Record Editor
About 800 people — mostly soldiers — died at the U.S. Army’s Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville when influenza struck the area in the fall of 1918. World War I was approaching its end and the flu was striking fatal blows at young people around the world.
Among the dead was a young Sister of Loretto, Mary Jean Connor, who had not yet made her final vows. She was one of 88 women religious who responded to a call for nursing reinforcements when the pandemic exploded at the camp in late September.
The story of these women has been researched over the last year or so by two local health-care educators interested in the history of nursing — Sara Bolten, a nursing instructor at McKendree University, and Dr. Mary Ann Thompson, a retired public health educator who taught at Bellarmine University and McKendree.
Using archives of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (SCNs), the Sisters of Loretto, The Record and several other sources, the researchers are now able to tell a compelling story about these women who did their part for the war effort.
Camp Taylor could house about 40,000 soldiers at a given time, according to the Filson Historical Society. By late September 1918, the camp was “absolutely desperate for nurses because they were overwhelmed with 7,000 cases of flu,” said Thompson. “The military nurses who were already there were becoming ill.”
The sisters came from seven congregations, most arriving by Oct. 5, 1918. Among them were the SCNs, Loretto Sisters, Ursuline Sisters of Louisville and of Mount St. Joseph, the Sisters of Mercy, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine, Ky., (now the Dominican Sisters of Peace) and Franciscan Sisters.
Only 10 of the 88 were trained nurses. The rest received training on site and were then placed in charge of caring for 120 to 150 men at a time, Thompson said.
Such demand seems unimaginable by today’s standards, she noted.
“They worked really hard. They probably did a really good thing by keeping an eye on the soldiers to notice who was getting sicker. We call that tertiary screening,” said Thompson, noting that soldiers whose conditions worsened were sent to a hospital on base. “We think that probably cut down on mortality. It probably would have been a lot worse if the sisters hadn’t been there.”
Overall, Thompson said, their research shows that there were at least 14,000 cases of flu from September through November at Camp Taylor. And at least 800 died.
According to the Filson society, 824 soldiers died in the outbreak. The exact number is difficult to pinpoint, Thompson said, because reporting of deaths from the flu was not mandatory until October.
Letters and journal entries uncovered by the researchers reveal the difficulties and stresses the women religious faced.
Those on the morning shift “would come in and 90 men would have died in the night,” Thompson said. The sisters worked 12 hour shifts and “knew they were putting their lives on the line.”
But they also felt compelled by their patriotism to do their part, Bolten noted.
“In every journal entry we read, they wrote about how proud they were to help the country,” Bolten said. “They had a real sense of patriotism. All of these orders were scrimping and saving to buy war bonds to support the war effort.”
By the time the epidemic began to fade, about a quarter of the sisters had fallen ill, but only one died. Sister of Loretto Mary Jean Connor received a military funeral from Camp Taylor at the Cathedral of the Assumption, Thompson added.
“With that flu (strain) it was young adults and children who suffered mostly,” Thompson said. “That’s one of the reasons so many soldiers died. They were in the age group that was so vulnerable to this flu.”
The last sisters left Camp Taylor, which is now a large and thriving neighborhood, by Nov. 8. That was just three days before Armistice Day. This year marks the 99th anniversary of Camp Taylor, which was in use by the Army from 1917 to 1920.
Thompson and Bolten lamented that the history of nursing in the United States has not been well documented.
“Most nursing in this country before World War II was done by women religious. It was a work of faith,” said Bolten. “It has been so interesting to learn about it.”
The researchers plan to present their findings in September to the Sisters of Loretto and at the annual meeting of the American Association for the History of Nursing.
They also plan to research another part of this story: The women religious who went on to Eastern Kentucky to care for miners and their families gripped by the same flu.