Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I

By Keeling, Arlene W. | Nursing History Review, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I


Keeling, Arlene W., Nursing History Review


Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I By Carol R. Byerly (New York: New York University Press, 2005) (272 pages; $65.00 cloth; $20.00 paper)

Fever of War is a compelling history of the intersection of pandemic influenza with America's participation in World War I. Using numerous primary sources and analyzing the data in relation to the published literature on the topic, Carol Byerly addresses one aspect of the global disaster-the impact the influenza pandemic had on the American military during the war. In doing this, she provides new insight into the reasons why this pandemic has long been ignored by historians.

The well-written prologue immediately draws the reader into the story of the pandemic and army medical officer Ward J. McNeal's role in understanding and combating the dreadful disease. Byerly then graphically recounts the spread of the deadly influenza virus from Kansas to Boston and along the northeastern seaboard. She then follows its transmission to the European theater of the Great War, where she details the havoc wrought by the flu in the military, particularly noting its devastating impact on soldiers' morale. In addition, Byerly documents the military physicians' overly optimistic view of the ability of scientific medicine to control disease and their ultimate failure in this regard.

Byerly's research demonstrates how the influenza epidemic was inextricably linked to the war, providing a concise description of the intersection of the flu with the German military offensive in the spring of 1918 (pp. 69-70). It also demonstrates how army medical officers, occupying a unique position between the government and its citizenry, had two responsibilities that were sometimes in conflict: they were to implement the administration's war aims while simultaneously protecting the health of the enlisted men and their officers.

Particularly noteworthy is Byerly's discussion of racial and gender discrimination in the American Army medical corps (pp. 29-31). Her discussion of women and black physicians' struggles for opportunity to serve their country is particularly interesting. She demonstrates once again the importance of race and gender in the history of American medicine.

What is largely missing from this account is attention to nurses and their role in the pandemic. Little attention is paid to the major role that nurses had in keeping patients alive when there was no effective cure for influenza and there were no antibiotics for the subsequent pneumonia that killed thousands of men, although the author does state that "Physicians and nurses alike knew that traditional nursing care-warmth, good food, bed rest-provided the best and only effective treatment for influenza and a preventive against pneumonia. …

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