Academic journal article Michigan Academician

Medical Progress and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918

Academic journal article Michigan Academician

Medical Progress and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918

Article excerpt


The influenza outbreak of 1918 spread around the world and left millions of people dead. This pandemic was both a crisis for human life and a crisis for medical professionals attempting to combat the disease. During a period when medicine had become thoroughly professionalized and had made numerous advances in medical treatment, medical professionals perceived their field to be rapidly and consistently progressing, and many believed that there was little medicine could not overcome. Success against such diseases as yellow fever fed the idea that science and rational thought could conquer society's ills drove medical professionals' efforts. However, these modern ideas of progress, perfectibility, and medicine's pending triumph over disease adversely affected the medical profession's ability to deal effectively with the influenza pandemic of 1918. Physicians' efforts had not prevented a serious outbreak, and once it had exploded, they could not control it. Looking specifically at the British medical profession's struggle with the pandemic, as it coursed through both Britain and Britain's armies abroad, this paper examines physicians' own writings and investigates both their initial confidence in the face of disease and their disappointment, fear, and lack of clear direction as the pandemic exploded. In the aftermath of the pandemic, their confusion, dearth of understanding, and pressure to fill the void in knowledge are evident. This paper, then, discusses how confidence affected their mindset when they confronted the pandemic, and how the pandemic, in turn, affected their concept of progress, the ability of medicine, and their duty thereafter.


Recently, the advent of the H1N1 virus has brought renewed attention to influenza's potential to cause lethal epidemics even in medically advanced areas of the world. In the years, and even decades, prior, influenza was no longer typically perceived as a terrifying disease. It arrived every winter and infected many people; however, in most places, it rarely seemed to kill anyone except perhaps the very young or the very old, portions of the population already weakened by other circumstances. Yet, as the H1N1 outbreaks exemplify, influenza is not always a harmless affliction. It has erupted into several epidemics and pandemics and has been responsible for the deaths of millions of people. During such outbreaks, influenza, and the myriad of other complications that can accompany it, can become deadly.

Though the H1N1 outbreaks provide an interesting example of influenza's ability to become pandemic, aided in its spread by the increased ease and volume of world travel, the largest and most devastating influenza outbreak occurred in 1918. That pandemic, erupting as World War I was ending, is estimated to have killed between twenty and fifty million people worldwide with many millions more being sickened (McNeill 1998, 292). World War I gathered together soldiers from across the globe. As they dispersed from the war, creating conditions similar to current practices of world travel, they carried influenza with them. This influenza pandemic was so virulent and out of the ordinary compared to influenza under regular conditions, that some had questioned whether it was actually influenza at all, yet no one doubted that this pandemic was exceedingly deadly (Edinburgh Medico-Chirurgical Society 1919, 46).

The influenza pandemic of 1918 represented both a crisis for human life and a crisis for medical professionals attempting to combat the disease. In the period before influenza's catastrophic outbreak, the medical profession had been experiencing a particular surge of confidence. The medical field had been thoroughly professionalized with new and increased educational requirements and licensing procedures for practicing physicians and had made numerous advances in medical treatment. Many physicians sincerely thought that there was little medicine could not overcome, given the proper study and a populace willing to follow medical advice. …

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