The influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919 was a deeply traumatic event. It has killed some 50 million people and infected up to a third of the world’s population. Unlike most strains of the flu, it was particularly deadly for young adults between the ages of 20 and 40, which means that many children have lost one or both parents. For doctors and scientists who thought they were beginning to overcome infectious diseases, the pandemic was a devastating blow. After the end, no one really wanted to talk about it – and there were so many other things going on.
“When I teach my American history class, I tell my students that 1919 is in the running for the worst year in American history,” said Nancy Tomes, distinguished professor of history at Stony Brook University who wrote about the pandemic.
In 1919, the United States was still fighting the pandemic, had just fought a war, and was now going through a deep recession. There have been strikes across the country, including the first general strike in Seattle. During the red summer of that year, white crowds violently attacked black communities, and black Americans – many of whom had served their country during the First World War and were tired of unequal citizenship – retaliated . And in the middle of the first Red Scare, the Justice Department responded to high-level anarchist bombing with the Palmer Raids.
Whatever the reason, the Americans did not seem to want to talk about their experience during the pandemic. And because they were reluctant to speak or write about the pandemic, future generations were not always aware of it. It has become, as the late historian Alfred W. Crosby said in the title of his 1974 book, “The Forgotten Pandemic of America”.
READ MORE: When wearing a mask is essential in resisting the 1918 pandemic
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The Spanish flu was a huge concern for the military forces of the First World War. Here, men are gargling salt water to prevent infection in the War Garden at Camp Dix (now Fort Dix) in New Jersey, around 1918.
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A woman wears a sci-fi flu nozzle attached to a machine circa 1919. It is unknown how it worked or whether it had any health benefits.
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Putting on a mask, a man uses a pump to spray an “anti-flu” substance unknown in the United Kingdom, around 1920.
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Professor Bordier, from the University of Lyon, apparently claimed that this machine could cure colds in a few minutes. This photo around 1928 shows him showing his own machine.
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Londoners wear masks to avoid catching the flu around 1932. It is a preventive method that people still use around the world today.
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In England, people wear different-looking masks to prevent the flu around 1932.
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The parents of this baby had the right idea in this photo around 1939. The flu can spread between people up to six feet apart, and because babies have high risk to develop serious complications from the flu, it is best that people who have not received the flu vaccine stay away.
Read more: Pandemics that have changed history
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British actress Molly Lamont (far right) receives her “emergency flu rations” of oranges at the Elstree Studios in London, circa 1940.
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Pandemic has been a traumatic event for doctors
The first recorded cases of influenza in 1918 occurred at an American army camp in Kansas in March 1918. In late summer and early fall, a second wave of deadly influenza appeared and occurred. caused particular havoc at Camp Devens in Massachusetts. About a third of the 15,000 people in the camp were infected and 800 died. Victor Vaughan was one of the doctors witnessing this epidemic. Yet in his 1926 book, Memories of a doctor, he barely touched on this important historical event.
“I am not part of the history of the flu epidemic,” he wrote. “He has surrounded the world, visited the most remote corners, taking stock of the most robust, sparing neither soldier nor civilian, and displaying his red flag in front of science.”
Before 1918 Vaughan and many other doctors were extremely optimistic about their ability to fight the disease. Although infectious diseases still account for a higher percentage of deaths in the United States than today, advances in medicine and sanitation have convinced doctors and scientists that they may one day largely eliminate the threat of these diseases.
The flu pandemic has changed everything. “It was for [Vaughan], a truly traumatic event that led him to question his profession and what he thought he knew about the possibilities of modern medicine “, explains Nancy Bristow, president of the history department of the University of Puget Sound and author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Flu Epidemic.
The 1918 flu is also missing from other doctors’ books. Hans Zinsser, who worked for the army medical service during the pandemic, did not mention it in Rats, lice and history, his 1935 book on the role of disease in history.
“One of the reasons I think we haven’t talked about the flu for 100 years is that these guys weren’t talking about it,” says Carol R. Byerly, author of Fever of War: the flu epidemic in the American army during the First World War. “They would say, ‘We really didn’t have a lot of infectious disease except the flu.’ and “our camp has worked very well, with the exception of this flu epidemic.” “
READ MORE: Why the second wave of the Spanish flu in 1918 was so deadly
Few personal stories have been published
It wasn’t just doctors. No one really wanted to speak or write what it was like to live with the flu. Newspaper articles on the pandemic generally don’t tell the personal stories of those who died or survived, says J. Alex Navarro, deputy director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan and one of the editors in chief of The American flu epidemic of 1918-1919: a digital encyclopedia.
“It strikes me,” he says. “I have read … probably thousands of newspaper articles on influenza in all of these cities throughout the pandemic, and I can cite those that stand out and speak about the personal tragedies of ordinary people because ‘they are so rare. “
Navarro remembers one of those stories in Chicago about Angelo Padula, a man who went out one night to find a doctor for his family affected by the flu. It has been extremely difficult to find and provide medical care to poor families like hers. When Padula couldn’t find anyone to help him, he jumped into the Chicago River and drowned.
During the following decades, historians who wrote about 1918 focused on the First World War rather than the flu, although the flu had a major impact on the war. The chaotic events of 1919 may also have overshadowed the specific trauma of the pandemic. This had consequences not only for the historical record, but probably also for those who survived the flu.
“What we now know about trauma is that when people have really traumatic experiences … the ability to talk about your trauma and be heard while you tell the story is really essential,” says Bristow. “So forgetting had consequences, I think.”
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