The influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919 was a profoundly traumatic event. It killed some 50 million people and infected up to a third of the world’s population. Unlike most flu strains, this one was particularly deadly for young adults between ages 20 and 40, meaning that many children lost one or both parents. For doctors and scientists who’d believed they were beginning to conquer infectious diseases, the pandemic was a devastating blow. After it was over, no one really wanted to talk about it—and besides, there was so much else going on.
“When I teach my U.S. history course, I tell my students, 1919 is in the running for the worst year in American history,” says Nancy Tomes, a distinguished professor of history at Stony Brook University who has written about the pandemic.
In 1919, the U.S. was still battling the pandemic, had just fought a war and was now in a deep recession. There were strikes throughout the country, including the first general strike in Seattle. During that year’s Red Summer, white mobs violently attacked Black communities, and Black Americans—many of whom had served their country in World War I and were tired of unequal citizenship—fought back. And in the midst of the first Red Scare, the Justice Department responded to high-profile anarchist bombings with the Palmer Raids.
Whatever the reason, Americans didn’t seem to want to talk about their experience during the pandemic. And because they were reluctant to talk or write about the pandemic, future generations weren’t always aware of it. It became, as the late historian Alfred W. Crosby put it in the title of his 1974 book, “America's forgotten pandemic.”
Pandemic Was Traumatic Event for Doctors
The first recorded cases of the 1918 flu were at a U.S. Army camp in Kansas in March 1918. By the late summer and early fall, a second, deadlier wave of the flu emerged and caused particular devastation at Camp Devens in Massachusetts. About a third of the 15,000 people at the camp became infected, and 800 died. Victor Vaughan was one of the doctors who witnessed this outbreak. Yet in his 1926 book, A Doctor’s Memories, he barely mentioned this important historical event.
“I am not going into the history of the influenza epidemic,” he wrote. “It encircled the world, visited the remotest corners, taking toll of the most robust, sparing neither soldier nor civilian, and flaunting its red flag in the face of science.”
Before 1918, Vaughan and many other doctors were extremely optimistic about their ability to combat disease. Although infectious diseases still accounted for a larger percentage of deaths in the United States than they do today, advances in medicine and sanitation had made doctors and scientists confident that they could one day largely eliminate the threat of these diseases.
The flu pandemic changed all that. “It was, for [Vaughan], a really traumatic event that made him question his profession and what he thought he had known about the possibilities of modern medicine,” says Nancy Bristow, chair of the history department at the University of Puget Sound and author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.
The 1918 flu is conspicuously absent from other doctors’ books, too. Hans Zinsser, who worked for the Army Medical Department during the pandemic, didn’t discuss it in Rats, Lice and History, his 1935 book about the role of disease in history.
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“One of the reasons I think that we didn’t talk about the flu for 100 years was that these guys weren’t talking about it,” says Carol R. Byerly, author of Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I. “They would say, ‘we really didn’t have much infectious disease, except for the flu;’ and ‘our camp did very well, except for that flu epidemic.’”
Few Personal Stories Were Published
It wasn’t just doctors. No one really wanted to talk or write about what it was like to live through the flu. Newspaper articles about the pandemic didn’t usually describe the personal stories of those who died or survived, says J. Alex Navarro, assistant director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan and one of the editors-in-chief of The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital Encyclopedia.
“It’s striking to me,” he says. “I’ve read…probably thousands of newspaper articles on influenza from all these cities throughout the pandemic, and I can list off the ones that stand out that talk about the personal tragedies of common folk because they’re just so few and far between.”
Navarro recalls one such story in Chicago about Angelo Padula, a man who went out one night to find a physician for his flu-stricken family. Finding and affording medical care was extremely difficult for poor families like his. When Padula couldn’t locate anyone to help him, he jumped into the Chicago River and drowned.
Over the next several decades, Historians who wrote about 1918 focused on World War I rather than the flu, even though the flu had a major impact on the war. The chaotic events of 1919 may have also overshadowed the specific trauma of the pandemic. This had consequences not just for the historical record, but likely also for those who survived the flu.
“Something we know about trauma now is that when people suffer through really traumatic experiences…the opportunity to talk through your trauma and to be heard as you tell the story is really essential,” Bristow says. “So the forgetting had consequences, I think.”
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