American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic


Between the years 1918 and1920, influenza raged around the globe in the worst pandemic in recorded history, killing at least fifty million people, more than half a million of them Americans. Yet despite the devastation, this catastrophic event seems but a forgotten moment in the United States.

American Pandemicoffers a much-needed corrective to the silence surrounding the influenza outbreak. It sheds light on the social and cultural history of Americans during the pandemic, uncovering both the causes of the nation's public amnesia and the depth of the quiet remembering that endured. Focused on the primary players in this drama--patients and their families, friends, and community, public health experts, and health care professionals--historian Nancy K. Bristow draws on multiple perspectives to highlight the complex interplay between social identity, cultural norms, memory, and the epidemic. Bristow has combed a wealth of primary sources, including letters, diaries, oral histories, memoirs, novels, newspapers, magazines, photographs, government documents, and health care literature. She shows that though the pandemic caused massive disruption in the most basic patterns of American life, influenza did not create long-term social or cultural change, serving instead to reinforce the status quo and the differences and disparities that defined American life.

As the crisis waned the pandemic slipped from the nation's public memory. The helplessness and despair Americans had suffered during the pandemic, Bristow notes, was a story poorly suited to a nation focused on optimism and progress. For countless survivors, though, the trauma never ended, shadowing the remainder of their lives with memories of loss. This book lets us hear these long-silent voices, reclaiming an important chapter in the American past.


According to family lore, in the fall of 1918 John Bristow, an adolescent of 14 or 15, was orphaned in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His mother Elizabeth had died quickly and unexpectedly of influenza. While attending funeral services a few days later, his father began feeling ill. Within days, John lost his only remaining parent. In the course of a week he had become both an orphan and an adult. (See Figure 0.1) Even the comforts of home were taken away, the family’s few possessions removed by relatives during the second funeral. With both parents gone, John went to work. Little more is known about this catastrophic event in young Bristow’s life, an event that was repeated millions of times during the fall and winter of 1918–1919 as the worst influenza pandemic in recorded history raged around the world.

Experts today estimate that as many as one-third of humans around the globe, perhaps 500 million people, and over one-quarter of Americans, roughly 25 million people, were infected by this new incarnation of influenza, incorrectly dubbed Spanish influenza by its contemporaries. Striking with unprecedented ferocity, the pandemic caused no fewer than 50 million deaths worldwide. Attacking in four waves, influenza hit first in the spring of 1918, but it attracted little public notice among Americans who expected annual influenza outbreaks. The wave of disease began to garner attention as it moved to the European battlefields during the late spring and summer. Then, in late August, the pandemic exploded in its second wave, striking simultaneously on three continents and spreading rapidly throughout the world. A third wave followed close behind, attacking in the winter as many communities were still recovering from the autumn crisis. In early 1920 influenza would strike in one more wave, or perhaps the first seasonal outbreak of this new influenza strain. The second wave of the pandemic was the most costly, when morbidity rates in most communities ranged between 25 and 40 percent. Though other influenza pandemics had killed only .1 percent of the infected, this attack wielded a shockingly high mortality rate of 2.5 percent, largely the result of bacterial pneumonia. Some 675,000 . . .

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