The 1918 influenza pandemic provides an opportunity for GAPE historians to examine how health and medicine intersected with the Great War, the Progressive Era, and the movements for prohibition and woman suffrage. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was at the confluence of these streams and offers a case study of an organization whose activities were disrupted and reshaped by the pandemic. The holdings of the WCTU Archives reveal how the national organization mobilized the testimony of health experts and “viral” newspaper reports in 1918 to support its Prohibition ratification campaign and resist attempts by the producers and suppliers of alcohol to push their products as an influenza cure.
I encountered the 1918 flu epidemic while reading a weekly from the small town of Aurora, MO: The Menace. The Menace was the most successful anti-Catholic newspaper in the 1910s: it regularly reached over one million readers. Some of the issues its news coverage of the flu raised still resonate today—conspiracy theories, fake news, sensationalism, scapegoating, fear of death, anxiety over the end of the USA and hopes for miraculous treatments—even if political targets and alliances have changed.
On November 15, 1918, in the midst of the influenza epidemic, C. E. Stanford, a resident of Stockton, California, openly defied the city’s mask ordinance saying, “I have never worn an influenza mask and never will. I am a healthy man now and know full well if I put one of those things on, I will get sick. I would rather stay in jail the rest of my life than wear one.”
An extended account of Stanford’s defiance provides insights into the tensions between enforcing, contesting, and evading mask ordinances. After proclaiming “that [he] had never worn a mask, was not wearing one, and would never wear one,” Stanford was “gathered in by the alert police force and forthwith confined in the county jail,” where he spent the night.
In a previous post, I laid out what I see as some of the overarching issues that I think are important to keep in mind when teaching the influenza pandemic of 1918 in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this post I would like to go over some additional themes that I find particularly useful when I discuss the 1918 catastrophe with my students. As in my previous effort, my focus here is on approaches that might be helpful for general history courses that focus on the United States (as opposed to, say, classes on world history or clinically-oriented courses intended for healthcare providers). As will probably become clear, I approach the topic primarily from the perspective of a historian of medicine. I hope this post will help explain how some of the insights from my field can be applied to classes in US history more generally.
The influenza pandemic of 1918 is often left out of history courses and other classes that cover the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has made the topic newly relevant and as a result many educators may want to add a lecture or other material on the 1918 pandemic into their courses. In this post I’d like to offer some general information about the 1918 pandemic and some suggestions about how to discuss it with students in the context of COVID-19 that might be helpful for historians and others who do not have a lot of experience with the history of medicine or public health.
I had never heard of the 1918 influenza pandemic when my laboratory decided to try to decode the genetic sequence of the virus from archived samples at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP). The year was 1995, and I was in my mid-thirties. None of my contemporaries had ever heard of the pandemic either. So what made this a compelling scientific question? Despite its obscurity (the only book we could find about it, by Alfred Crosby, was entitled America’s Forgotten Pandemic), the pandemic raised important questions: why was the mortality rate so much higher than other pandemics? Why did it particularly target young adults? Where did the virus come from?
Between August 14 and August 19, 1908, the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-minded Children at Elwyn admitted seven new “inmates,” part of the yearly influx of new arrivals before the school year began. They ranged in age from seven to twenty and received diagnoses at the highest (“high grade imbecile”) and lowest (“excitable idiot”) ends of the classification scale used by Elwyn’s superintendent, Dr. Martin Barr. During their time at Elwyn some of them learned woodworking, floor scrubbing, laundry, or chicken keeping. Their unpaid labor was crucial to the maintenance of Elwyn’s budget and staffing levels, both of which were stretched impossibly thin. Other “inmates” were deemed “helpless.”
In 1918 in the northern suburban fringe of Chicago, an insidious illness killed twice the number of naval personnel in two months than combat did during the entire First World War. The so-called Spanish influenza epidemic swept through Great Lakes Naval Training Station “like the Black Plague,” recalled Martin Birkham, a YMCA volunteer at the training station. The hard choices made at Great Lakes should haunt us today.
Influenza arrives in AK. “While Spanish Influenza will not come to Alaska as quickly as it spread across the continent, it will be here in time,” said Dr. L.O. Sloane, public health officer, this morning. -The Alaska Daily Empire, Oct. 5, 1918. The Empire’s Readers did not have to wait long. By Oct. 14, the paper reported 4 cases in Juneau. On Oct. 20, 36 people arrived in Nome on the steamship Victoria. Though mail bags were fumigated, the sickness was carried across western & northern Alaska, likely following postal & mining trails. The impact was immediate. This was especially true for Indigenous communities.