Academic journal article Urban History Review

An Epidemic without Enmity: Explaining the Missing Ethnic Tensions in New Haven's 1918 Influenza Epidemic

Academic journal article Urban History Review

An Epidemic without Enmity: Explaining the Missing Ethnic Tensions in New Haven's 1918 Influenza Epidemic

Article excerpt

In the autumn of 1918, as troops in Europe waged the final battles of the First World War, city health officials in New Haven, Connecticut--and worldwide--began to confront a virulent and highly infectious strain of influenza. With over a thousand reported deaths and thousands more reported infections among the population by the spring of 1919, the influenza epidemic affected both New Haven's rich and poor, from the largely Italian industrial working class to members of the socio-economic elite at Yale University. Yet as health professionals anticipated, mortality statistics showed that Italians had died at nearly twice the rate of Anglo residents, and at higher rates than any other immigrant group in the city. (1) These rates confirmed for many public health officials the theory that Italians, as a 'race,' succumbed to influenza and pneumonia at a rate disproportional to other ethnic groups. (2)

Medical historians have long argued that the public associations made among immigrants, poverty, and disease cause community tensions to escalate during urban epidemics. (3) Given the perception of innate Italian susceptibility to influenza during the era and the low socio-economic status of Italian immigrants in New Haven, the historiography of epidemic disease would predict hostility towards New Haven's Italian community from the city's Anglo majority. Yet the influenza epidemic in this industrial city provides a counter-example, showing a distinct lack of community tensions, despite many potential points of ethnic and class conflict. At the peak of the epidemic, New Haven's small yet burgeoning Italian middle class used public discussions of the epidemic to construct a new public face of the Italian community as modernized and patriotic. This effort, coupled with a community-wide emphasis on wartime unity and a subsequent move towards less coercive forms of public health authority and control, made the local response to the epidemic a story of cooperation and compliance, rather than scapegoating and hostility.

Scholars of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic have until recently ignored ethnicity as a category of analysis and have neglected the voices and experiences of non-native populations. (4) Newer works have begun to interrogate class and ethnicity in relation to influenza in Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and other areas, but little work has been done in analyzing ethnicity and influenza response in cities of the United States and most of North America. (5) The case of New Haven during the First World War demonstrates that ethnic and class identities must be considered in analyzing the influenza pandemic, for they contributed to diverse individual and community understandings of the disease and its social implications. Further, this focus illustrates that the conceptual links between immigrants and epidemic disease are not the same for influenza as they are for other urban epidemics such as cholera or typhoid.

In 1918, New Haven was the thirty-ninth largest city in the United States, composed of 162,000 inhabitants, over twenty per cent of whom were Italian immigrants and their children, and who were largely impoverished and segregated within specific wards of the city (see figure 1). By this period, however, some members of the Italian community had begun to establish the financial and cultural capital that accelerated their upward mobility into the small but influential Italian petite bourgeoisie. These bankers, small-business owners, editors, and other professionals had started to move to more prosperous areas of the city, but physical and social ties with the larger Italian community remained strong. (6) Through the Italian-language press, these community leaders embraced the epidemic moment to encourage other Italians to adopt U.S. biomedical theories and practices and to demonstrate Italian respectability and patriotism to the Anglo community.

At the same time, New Haven's Department of Health and the Yale University School of Public Health, which were tightly connected, possessed significant cultural and legal authority, locally and nationally. …

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