By Mary Cathrin May 


Timeline of Events:[1]

1918 “Spanish Flu” – named by reporters who first learned about the disease when cases surfaced in Spain (Type-A influenza, H1N1)

1933 First generation vaccine for Type-A virus

1942 Vaccine introduced after discovery of Type-B Influenza (a less potent type of H1N1)

1948 World Health Organization (WHO) established in London

Post-WWII Influenza epidemic expected in US did not materialize

1956 Center for Disease Control (CDC), Atlanta, designated a WHO Collaborating Center for Surveillance, Epidemiology, and Control of Influenza

1957-58 “Asian” flu epidemic (a sub-type of Type-A)

1968-69 “Hong Kong” flu (a sub-type of Type-A)

2009 “Bird” or “Swine” flu (a sub-type of Type A)

2020 Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19)—new type of virus that has not been identified

Note:  The prevalence of Type-A viruses in China is linked to population explosion, the shifting urban landscape, and the subsequent destruction of the natural environment.


(TD, July 6, 1957, p. 6)

Background.  In 1957, forty years after the devastating Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, a new and deadly type of influenza that first appeared in Eastern Asia was sweeping around the globe.  Dubbed “Asian” flu, in June this unidentified virus had made its way to California and began spreading across the country. By July U. S. health authorities were reporting some 11,000 cases nationwide, including two in South Florida, and three deaths that were attributed to complications “presumably” caused by Asian flu. The U. S. Surgeon General announced that for the first time in this country, the CDC and private drug manufacturers already had taken “preliminary steps” to produce an effective vaccine which might be available as early as September.   Initial supplies would not be sufficient to vaccinate everyone; therefore, in order to forestall a breakdown in “vital services” health authorities advised local officials to draw up a prioritized list of persons who performed “essential functions” to receive the first shots.[2] 

At first the disease in Florida appeared to be concentrated in the southern half of the state, but by mid-summer flu “of some type” was reported as far north as Alachua, Madison, Jefferson, and Leon Counties.  On August 10, the Tallahassee Memorial Hospital admitted nine people with “sore throat and severe muscular ache,” symptoms Leon County Health Director Dr. Joe Bistowish said were characteristic of Spanish or Asian flu. Bistowish reported that two members of his own staff were suffering from mild cases that could become more severe. Fearing an epidemic, Bistowish sent samples of the patients’ blood to the State Health Department in Jacksonville to determine whether the sickness was the virus that caused Asian flu, or one of a “less potent” type.  Both he and City Manager Arvah Hopkins put in an order for the vaccine as soon as a supply was available.  Otherwise, the doctor could only advise residents to “keep your nutrition up with balanced meals and plenty of rest.”[3]

***

Flu is “Top Gainer” of the Football Season. The worst of the epidemic struck Florida in September just as schools and colleges were gearing up for the 1957 football season.  South of Tallahassee in Gainesville the flu, “presumed to be of the Asian variety,” had spread through the student bodies at Gainesville High School and the University of Florida.  Even before the football season began U. of F. Head Coach Bob Woodruff had sixty-five sick “freshmen and varsity” players, and the numbers were growing.  Given the situation, Woodruff was forced to cancel the team’s highly-anticipated trip to southern California where on September 2 the Gators were scheduled to face-off with UCLA.  When asked how his team was shaping up, Woodruff grinned and replied: “You might say we are in a ‘flu-id’ situation at present!”[4] 

Further north in Tallahassee, home town fans prepared to kick-off the season’s first big football week-end on Friday night, September 20.  The evening was set to begin with a parade followed by back-to-back games between the JV and varsity teams of the Leon High School Lions and the Gainesville High Hurricanes. The next day, September 21, the Florida State University Seminoles would open the “eleventh season” of FSU’s “first decade of football” when they played host to the Furman University Purple Hurricanes in Doak S. Campbell Stadium.[5]

In the days prior to the high school games, Gainesville Coach Dick Flowers had from twenty-five to thirty of his stand-out players who were either ill or recovering from the flu, among them All-State quarterback Eddie Feeley and All-NEC leftback Bill Gillis.  In Tallahassee, Leon Coach Fred Snyder was in a similar situation.  Leading up to game night twenty-two of his best players had been too sick to attend school or football practice, and twelve were still out of play.  Flowers and Snyder were on the phone all week trying to decide whether they should reschedule the games or cancel them altogether. In the end, the coaches pulled in reserve players and on September 20 the two teams met in Tallahassee as planned.[6]

On Friday night before the high school games, an estimated 3,000 fans launched the football week-end with a huge parade down Monroe Street. Riding at the head of the procession were FSU President Robert M. Strozier and Head Coach Tom Nugent, escorted by city policemen and Florida Highway Patrolmen.  Next in line came marching bands from FSU, FAMU and local high schools, squads of cheerleaders, “rooting sections,” and a bevy of city officials and residents driving in decorated automobiles.[7] 

The marchers and teams converged at Centennial Field, and, briefly delayed by a black-out when the lighting system failed, the games between Leon and Gainesville got underway.  According to Ron Hamm, sportswriter for the Democrat, when the teams took the field players on both sides looked like “fugitives from the infirmary.” But play they did and the contests ended in what might be described an even split, Gainesville’s JV team beat Leon 19-0 while Leon’s varsity players defeated the Gainesville ‘Canes by a score of 12-0.[8]   

The Friday night high school match was a precursor to the much-anticipated big game between FSU and Furman the following day, Saturday, September 21. In their past meet-ups FSU had bested Furman three out of five games, and Democrat sports reporter Bill McGrotha wrote that “on paper FSU figures somewhat better than last year.” Furman’s players appeared to be free of the flu, but reportedly FSU Coach Nugent had managed to obtain a “supply of vaccine” and saw that each of his players received “a shot.”[9]

On Saturday, before a crowd of 15,000, FSU got off to a bad start.  The players “bungled” their way through the first quarter, but came back early in the second quarter to make three quick touchdowns and go on to beat Furman 27 – 7. One of the Seminoles on the field that night was a young fellow named Burt “Buddy” Reynolds who went on to become a nationally acclaimed film star, but for the rest of his life maintained a close relationship with FSU.[10] 

***

Worse before Better. In the days following the big football week-end, a stronger wave of influenza swept through Gainesville and Tallahassee.  On September 25, Gainesville reported sixty cases and the hospital had only sixty-five beds. Anticipating an increase in patients, the Civil Defense sent “200 cots, mattresses, and blankets” to accommodate any overflow. By September 28, the Alachua County Health Department reported 1,500 new cases, not yet “epidemic proportions,” but doctors expected things would “get worse before they got better.”[11] 

The situation in Tallahassee was even more urgent.  In the wake of the big football week-end Dr. Bistowish said the town – population just under 48,000 – had “5,000” cases of the flu: 4,000 among city residents and up to 1,000 at the two universities. An estimated fifty FSU students were in the college infirmary, which had already treated and discharged seventy patients and was caring for “five times as many” as out-patients.  At Florida A. & M. (FAMU), 400 hundred cases “flared up” and at least 160 students and seventy-three “townspeople” were admitted to the FAMU Hospital.  Leon High School reported that student absences had risen to twelve per cent, up from the normal four per cent, and at Lincoln High on Brevard Street the football team was suffering from the flu.  However, Bistowish declared that most of the cases appeared to be “mild with few complications” and he saw “no reason” to close the schools.  Thinking that the sickness might “possibly” be Asian flu, Dr. Bistowish sent another round of blood samples to Jacksonville.[12] 

By that time, the doctor and City Manager Arvah Hopkins had received a small supply of the flu vaccine which they administered to essential personnel and now were awaiting the arrival of another supply.  In the midst of the scare, Dr. Bistowish urged against “undue alarm,” and instructed “anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms to seek medical care.”[13]

Centennial Field, ca. 1960 (State of Florida Archives)

Meanwhile, the onset of flu at FAMU got the Rattlers’ football season off to a rough start. On Saturday, September 28, the team was scheduled to play its season opener against the North Carolina College Eagles at Centennial Field, but Coach Jake Gaither had at least five major players sick with the flu and another five nursing an assortment of injuries.  The last two practices were described as “lousy and sluggish.  Then three days before the game, flu of “epidemic proportions” broke out at the NC school and the coach called to cancel the event.[14]

FAMU’s bleak outlook led Democrat reporter C. J. Smith, III, to remind readers that in 1953, as the Rattler’s prepared to open the season, Coach Gaither was faced with an “unforeseen shortage of halfbacks.” That year, Smith wrote, the coach had begrudgingly settled for a “long, gangly” new young player named Willie Gallimore, who, as Gaither later declared, turned out to be “just what the doctor ordered.”  Now, four years later Gallimore had moved up the Chicago Bears, and Coach Gaither, faced with a roster of sick players that included tackle Riley Morris and fullback Olious Barker, cancelled all games scheduled in September.[15] 

However, Gaither “kept his fingers crossed” that by October the team would be “game hungry” when they met Fort Valley in FAMU’s newly-constructed Bragg Stadium in what would be their first match of the season. His confidence was not misplaced.  By game day the team was in better physical condition, “the gaps had been filled,” and on October 12 headlines in the Democrat read, “A&M Mauls Fort Valley” 74-0.[16] 

The situation at the University of Florida in Gainesville was also slow to improve.  In September, as Gators Coach Bob Woodruff prepared for the first game of the season, eighty-eight of his players were sick with what was thought to be Asian flu, but instead turned out to be a “common B-type influenza.” However, faced with an “apparent epidemic,” Woodruff simply cancelled all games for the next two months.  By November 9, the team had recovered sufficiently to play the Georgia Bulldogs in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville where a crowd of 41,500 fans watched as the Gators “humbles Georgia, 22-0.”[17]

A First Down for the Gators in the Gator Bowl
(TD, November 10, 1957)

***

Aftermath and Footnote.   In November, the Florida Health Department finally informed Dr. Bistowish that the blood samples he had sent for analysis revealed “no Asian flu.”  From all indications, Tallahassee had been hit with a Type-B virus, far less potent than Type-A which caused Asian flu. Local patients were recovering and there were no reports of any long-lasting complications, or of any deaths directly attributed to the flu.[18]  

Leon County Health Department administers
flu vaccine to employees of Tallahassee Democrat
(TD, October 20, 1957)

Due to the ample supply and efficient delivery of the new vaccine to civilians and the military, by December the number of flu cases in the U. S. and worldwide was dropping significantly.  Health authorities advised folks to remain vigilant as there was always the chance a second and “more virulent” wave could return later. Fortunately that did not occur, and among the top ten news stories in 1957 the Asian flu epidemic ranked number eight — behind President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “latest illness” (a mild stroke) and above the “Girard case,” a sensational murder committed by an American G. I. in Japan[19]

(TD, December 26, 1957, p. 15)

***

The Asian flu ultimately caused from 1.5 to 2 million deaths worldwide and some 70,000 deaths in the U. S., but apparently most of Florida—and Tallahassee, in particular—managed to escape with only minor illnesses.  In the end, the vaccine introduced in 1957 slowed down the pandemic and was credited with preventing up to a million American deaths.  For another decade the Type-A virus continued to pop up during the regular fall and winter flu seasons, but in 1968, for reasons yet unknown, “the Asian flu disappeared from the human population and is believed to have gone extinct in the wild.”[20]

 

NOTES

[1] “Influenza Historic Timeline,” https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/pandemic-timeline-1930-and-beyond.htm; “The Evolving History of Influenza Viruses and Vaccines,” https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/812621; Suresh V. Kuchpudi, “Why So Many Epidemics originate in Asia and Africa – and Why We Can Expect More,” Discover, March 4, 2020.

[2] “New Influenza Hits America,” Tallahassee Democrat, June 10, 1957 (hereafter cited as TD); “U.S. Wary of Asian Flu,” TD, June 14, 1957. “Asiatic Vaccine to be Available;” “Vaccine Tested for Asiatic Flu,” TD, July 9, 1957; “AMA Set to Fight Any Oriental Flu,” TD, July 28, 1957. “Leon Health Staff to Get Flu Shots,” TD, August 13, 1957; “Vaccine Priority Basis Proposed,” TD, August 29, 1957.

[3] “Scattered Flu Cases Reported, Analysis Made,” TD, August 12, 1957; “Cupid Outworks Divorce               Lawyers,” TD, August 26, 1957.

[4] “Flu Outbreak Brings Worry to Woodruff,” TD, September 8,1957; “Gator-UCLA Game Off,” TD, September 10, 1957; “Top Gainer of the Season?—It’s Flu,” TD,  September 26, 1957, p. 14; “Asian Flu to Hit Harder,” TD September 29, 1957.

[5] Bill McGrotha, “FSU Hosts Furman Tonight to Open Football Season,” TD, September 21, 1957.

[6] Bill McGrotha, “Way it Was,” TD, September 22, 1957; “Leon Players Look Sharp in Work-Out,” TD, September 19, 1957, p. 10.

[7] “3000 Marchers to Welcome King Football,” TD, September 20, 1957.

[8] “Leon Meets Gainesville Here Tonight,” TD, September 20, 1957; “Light Failure Cools Canes as Leon Scores 12-0 Win,” TD, September 21, 1957.

[9] “FSU to Dress 45 for Furman,” TD, September 19, 1957, p. 10; Bill McGrotha, “FSU Hosts Furman Tonight to Open Football Season,” TD, September 21, 1957.

[10] Bill McGrotha, “From the Sidelines,” TD, September 20, 1957; “FSU Pounds by Furman,” TD,   September 22, 1957.

[11] “CD Beds Sent to Gainesville for Flu Cases,” TD, September 25, 1957.

[12] “Flu at Epidemic Stage in Capital,” TD, September 26, 1957;

[13] “Leon Health Staff to Get Flu Shots,” TD, August 13, 1957 “Flu at Epidemic Stage in Capital;” “Be Careful With Flu, Doctor Says,” TD, September 26, 1957; “Asian Flu to Hit Harder,” TD   September 29, 1957.

[14] “Rattlers Hit by Injuries, Flu Outbreak,” TD, September 22, 1957; “Flu Cancels A & M Game,” TD, September 25, 1957

[15] C. J. Smith, III, “Tallahassee Topics,” TD, September 28, 1957; “New Flu Cases Plague Rattlers,” TD, September 29, 1957, p.30.

[16] “Rattlers Open Season in Fort Valley Game,” TD, October 11, 1957.

[17] TD, September 12, 1957, p. 1; Bill McGrotha, “From the Sidelines,” TD, September 20, 1957; Bill   McGrotha, “From All Sides,” TD, September 15, 1957; “Florida Passing Humbles Georgia,” TD, Bill McGrotha, “What if No Flu?” TD, November 11, 1957.

[18] “No Asian Flu,” TD, November 19, 1957; “Nation Still Faces Danger of More Flu,” TD, January 2, 1958.

[19] “Marked Drop in Flu Cases Reported,” TD, December 1, 1957; “Best Stories of 1957,” TD, December 26, p. 15; Marvin Arrowsmith, “French Amazed by Ike’s Recovery from Illness,” TD, December 16, 1957. 

[20] “Asian Flu (1957 Pandemic),” https://www.sinobiological.com/research/virus/1957-influenza-pandemic-asian-flu; “The History of Vaccines,” https://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/asian-influenza-pandemic