Campus News

‘Behind the Blue Special Edition’: Terry Birdwhistell Talks About UK During the 1918 Flu Pandemic

LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 17, 2020) — In 1918, as the United States sent troops to the Western Front for the final months of World War I, an influenza pandemic raged across the globe, infecting nearly a quarter of the world’s population of around 500 million at that time. The death toll was immense, with estimates anywhere from 17-50 million, and some as high as 100 million lives lost. The University of Kentucky was not immune to this deadly pandemic and in response turned its gymnasium, now known as Buell Armory, into a makeshift hospital with help from the Red Cross.

Terry L. Birdwhistell, senior oral historian in the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at UK Libraries, has a personal connection to the 1918 flu pandemic, due to his own family being impacted. “Back then in Anderson County,” Birdwhistell says, “a farm family would have six, eight, 10 kids, to work the farm. I always thought it was odd that my father was an only child, coming out of that environment.” Birdwhistell says his mother told him in later years, “your grandmother had the flu that year, she was pregnant and she lost the baby, and she couldn’t have any more children. It put it all in perspective.”

On this special edition of “Behind the Blue,” Kody Kiser and Carl Nathe of UK Public Relations and Strategic Communications talk with Birdwhistell about life at the time of the 1918 influenza pandemic, how the university and community responded, the unique roles UK's university presidents played both then and now, and more.

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