Remembering the Flu

by John Pecoraro, Assistant Director

When Army cook Albert Gitchell reported to sick call at Fort Riley on March 4, 1918, little did anyone suspect that the world was in the midst of an epidemic that would kill nearly five percent of the world’s population. The influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 (called the Spanish flu) infected 500 million people worldwide, killing an estimated 50 to 100 million.

As the Spanish influenza spread worldwide, it killed more people than perished in the First World War, including at least half a million Americans. Yet, argues Alfred W. Crosby in “America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918,” the Spanish flu is largely forgotten today. In this vivid narrative, Professor Crosby recounts the course of the pandemic during the panic-stricken months of 1918 and 1919, measures its impact on American society, and probes the curious loss of national memory of this cataclysmic event. 

The great influenza epidemic of 1918 exploded across the world with unequaled ferocity and speed. It killed more people in twenty weeks than AIDS has killed in twenty years; it killed more people in a year than the plagues of the Middle Ages killed in a century. In “The Great Influenza: the Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History,” historian John M. Barry unfolds a spellbinding tale as he weaves multiple narrative strands together. In this first great collision between science and epidemic disease, Barry portrays the handful of heroic researchers who stepped forward, risking their lives to confront this worldwide tragedy. They revolutionized American science and public health, and their work has led to crucial discoveries that we are still using and learning from today.

Influenza wasn’t the only epidemic America has had to endure. At the turn of the last century, smallpox swept the country from coast to coast. In “Pox: an American History,” Michael Willrich chronicles our nation’s fight against smallpox that resulted in universal compulsory vaccination. People of a certain age may remember being vaccinated and bear a small circular mark on an upper arm as proof. Because of aggressive vaccination programs, the World Health Organization certified the worldwide eradication of smallpox in 1980.

If you lived during the early 1950s, you may remember the fear of poliomyelitis, polio for short. You may even remember taking the oral vaccine against the debilitating disease. David Oshinsky tells the story of the polio terror in America, and the intense effort to find a cure, in “Polio: an American Story.” The first effective vaccine against polio was discovered by Jonas Salk in 1952. An oral vaccine was developed by Albert Sabin, among others. During the years 1962-1965, 100 million Americans received the oral vaccine. I remember a sweet, pink liquid I took at my elementary school. Polio has nearly been eradicated worldwide, with only 223 cases reported in 2012.

Molly Caldwell Crosby recounts the untold story of yellow fever, the epidemic that shaped American history, in “The American Plague.” This mosquito-borne virus arrived on slave ships, attacking port towns, and running rampant along the Mississippi. Though it did not kill in numbers as high as cholera and smallpox, and it was not contagious, yellow fever was the most dreaded disease in North America for two hundred years. It was the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 that precipitated the relocation of our nation’s capital. Napoleon abandoned his conquests in North America after losing over 20,000 troops to the disease in Haiti, and completed his retreat from the hemisphere by selling Louisiana. The majority of Crosby’s book recounts the yellow fever outbreaks of 1878 in Memphis and efforts to discover how the disease spread in the aftermath of the Spanish American War.

Humanity has always feared the unknown, and this holds especially true of humankind’s attitude towards epidemic disease. “Dread,” by Philip Alcabes, argues how fear and fantasy have colored the human response to diseases from the Black Death to the Avian Flu. Fear of the unknown, the undesirable, and the misunderstood have often been given more credence than fact.   If you have a fascination with the history of disease and the human response to it, look no further than the Manhattan Public Library.

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