In 1918 through 1919 as many as 50 million people died of the influenza pandemic (also known as Spanish Influenza Pandemic or Spanish Flu). It is said that the influenza emerged in three waves. First “the three-day fever” came in the spring and was relatively mild. The second came that summer and was the most severe. It hit so fast and severely that nothing could be done in terms of treatment because pneumonia would develop. The third wave came that winter and a few months later the virus had lightened up. But when the influenza outbreak hit Cumberland County, Dr. May Wharton did her best to combat it in a very rural community that she was brand new to.
Dr. Wharton had not been in Cumberland County long and the news of a Doctor Woman was slowly spreading. She had come to the county because her husband had taken on the position of Principal at Pleasant Hill Academy. It did not take the Wharton’s long to realize that this rural community was in dire need of their help. Their impact left a mark on Cumberland County that will never be forgotten.
Her accounts of the mountain people are extremely fascinating and there is no better way to get a feel for it than to read her words. The following is an excerpt from her autobiography, Doctor Woman of the Cumberlands:
“The buggy had a seat, a few boards for a floor, but neither dashboard nor tailgate. Between the shafts was no horse, but a little jenny hardly larger than a good-size dog. I took my seat, gathering all my paraphernalia in my lap for safety, and off we went. My driver proudly informed me that he had just bought his jenny, and kept calling my attention to how well she was doing. I thought so myself, considering the harness and the rig, the load and the road. I was ashamed of my own weight behind the little creature.
We came to the hill going down. The jenny couldn’t hold us back. So she just sat down in the breaching and slid all the way down the hill, to the delight of her owner, who kept repeating, ‘Ain’t she a dandy, though?’
Yes, she was a dandy.
We and my bags and the jenny all arrived at the foot of the hill no worse for wear. She pulled us sturdily across the shallow ford some distance upstream from the footlog, and then up the long, steep hill.
In the little cabin in Browntown the flu had all the family in bed except a girl and a two-year-old baby who was running about mother-naked while the girl was trying frantically to find her a dress.
The man lying there beside his very sick-looking wife said in a hoarse voice, ‘Could be we-uns waited too long, Doctor, but hit don’t seem natural fer-’ he couldn’t finish, and I did it for him.
‘-for a woman to be a doctor? That’s all right. I know how you feel. There aren’t very many of us women doctors yet, but we can take care of you just like the men.’
I checked the wife quickly, but thoroughly enough to confirm my sight diagnosis that it was too late for medicine to save her.
I told him.
‘Hit’s God’s will,’ he said. ‘Hain’t no use to fret.’”
(Doctor Woman of the Cumberlands, Wharton, p. 49-50)
This is just one account of many from the Influenza Pandemic throughout Cumberland County. Thankfully, very few were fatal. Needless to say, her students at the academy went unscathed. She credits her study of homeopathy. To this day it is still uncertain where the virus originated.
- Doctor Woman of the Cumberlands, May Cravath Wharton, M.D.