In 1918 a citizen petition led Kingsport to establish a hospital to treat flu patients

J. H. Osborne • Mar 15, 2020 at 6:00 PM

Life experiences from branches on both sides of my family tree shaped my nature when it come to caution, perhaps overdone, when it comes to potentially dangerous illnesses that are transmitted by something so simple as exposure to “droplets” from someone infected with a virus.

I was probably only 10 year sold or so when my paternal grandmother, Maude Duff Ward Osborne, told me about surviving the influenza pandemic of 1918. She would have been 16 at the time, and after regaining strength and enough awareness of what was going on she learned a sister had not been as lucky. My mother has since told me her father, “Popie” Null Wallen, at times told her of his own survival of the 1918 flu pandemic. He recounted how he’d watched neighbor after neighbor and family and family come down with the illness in rural Lee County, Va. and how he’d made the rounds as often as he could checking on those neighboring farmers and helping make sure they had wood for their fires — until, he, too, had come down with the flu.

Years later, when Mom was just a child, another bad flu had ripped through their community. One neighbor’s whole family was sick. And there was snow on the ground. Popie and Mom’s sister Mary (she was a bit older than mom) would head over each morning. Popie would stoke coal and wood into the kitchen stove and Aunt Mary would bake biscuits, fry ham (freshly sliced from the ham’s curing in the family’s smokehouse) and make gravy. One of the daughter’s was so weak that for a while Aunt Mary had to spoon-feed the child. Ultimately, the mother of the family succumbed. But the rest survived. Another family in the community is said to have buried one daughter only to return home from the cemetery to find another daughter had died.

Popie might have been gravely ill with a flu more than once, because Mom isn’t sure if another memory passed down from her father is a part of the 1918 pandemic or a later event. It includes the well-known-in-them-parts “Doc Andy.” That would be Dr. Andrew Jackson Osborne, who served rural Lee County folks for decades. I’ve found references online today to Doc Andy having a good success rate during the ’18 flu pandemic, so maybe this tale from Popie does relate to that time. Popie was very sick for many days and not always lucid. Doc Andy, on horseback, visited every day to check Popie’s status and provide whatever treatment he could. During this time Popie had a recurring dream: he and Doc Andy were out for a walk and they’d wade into a pond edged with algae. Popie would, at this point in the dream, pass his hand through the algae and try to grab a handful. But it would dissolve into the water and his hand would emerge empty. Then one day, in the dream, his hand caught hold of the algae — and when he next awoke he had begun to recover.

I grew up being told to wash my hands often and especially after being in a crowd or touching handrails and doorknobs. Way before gel-like hand sanitizer became a thing, it was routine in our home to wash your hands — then douse them with rubbing alcohol. As a boy I thought this ridiculous. Now I’m thinking it’s a good thing.

A brief search of Times News archive materials didn’t turn up much about the 1918 flu pandemic. But I did learn one thing. On Oct. 11, 1918, the city of Kingsport founded Kingsport Community Hospital in answer to a petition from citizens who asked that the city establish a treatment facility to care for those infected with influenza.

The facility was located on the second floor of the Hick’s building at the corner of Broad and Market streets and “The hospital for several months after its establishment was filled with ‘flu” patients, nearly all of whom, it is thought, owe their lives to treatment received therein,” according to an article in the Kingsport Times on Nov. 14, 1919. The subject of the article: the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Alderman had sold the hospital the night before to “Drs. Edwards and Tipton” for $1,800. The hospital had, since its opening, been operating at a loss to the city of $250 to $300 per month — and city couldn’t afford that, officials said. Acting City Manager Frank L. Cloud said “We have made arrangements with Drs. Edwards and Tipton to care for charity cases, and persons residing here who are too poor to pay for hospital accommodations will not suffer because the city has sold the hospital.”

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