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100 years ago, Richmond survived 'The Spanish Flu'

When Adair Archer’s country needed him the most. the soldier answered the call.
Posted at 10:40 AM, Mar 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-21 00:09:53-04

RICHMON, Va. -- When Adair Archer’s country needed him the most. the soldier answered the call.

The 26-year-old sergeant lost his life in October 1918 during World War I.

His death made front page news in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The University of Virginia graduate did not die from wounds on a battlefield.

Errol Somay, with Virginia Newspaper Project, says Archer died at the hands of an invisible enemy.

“Exactly 100 years ago was one of the greatest plagues of our time. Maybe in recorded history," Somay said.

The Spanish Flu.

An influenza pandemic that raced across the globe.

“During its worst time. Literally millions perished," Somay said.

An estimated 20 to 50 million died worldwide.

“During WWI more people died of the influenza than on the battlefield. That shows you the impact of this disease," Somay said.

Somay said soldiers returning to Camp Lee fueled the spread of the illness across the Commonwealth. The director of the project read evidence in black and white.

“A total of 1,128 cases in Richmond," Somay read. “More than 12,000 cases are reported by soldiers Friday night. Deaths nearly doubled.”

More than 325,000 Virginians were infected and about 20,000 perished.

The Library of Virginia’s Gregg Kimball pointed to eerie parallels between the Spanish Flu and the current coronavirus.

“One of the most unique things about this flu is that it killed so many people between 20 and 40 years old in the prime of their lives," Kimball said. “I think what is so mind blowing is how sudden it was.”

Life ground to a halt as experts tried containing the illness.

“They decided to close the State Fair completely," Kimball said. "They made the decision to close movie theaters. Businesses and finally public schools. Again, echoes of what’s happening today.”

By 1920 the influenza all but disappeared.

Eventually it faded from headlines.

But historian Gregg Kimball said the coronavirus is forcing people to remember.

“It is kind of frightening," Kimball said. “Certainly some recent health crisis like this one will hopefully bring that memory back so people will understand at this time frame.”

The Spanish Flu’s toll may be difficult to comprehend, but Errol Somay said one man -- Adair Archer -- humanizes a global illness.

“As we said thousands perished in Virginia alone from this and each one is a story," Somay said. “This really does put a face to this terrible pandemic that spread through the world. And of course, Virginia.”

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