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Why the 1918 Flu Became 'America's Forgotten Pandemic'

July 7, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

After the deadly pandemic was over, no one really wanted to talk about it—and besides, there was so much else going on.

The , he barely mentioned this important historical event.

“I am not going into the history of the influenza epidemic,” he wrote. “It encircled the world, visited the remotest corners, taking toll of the most robust, sparing neither soldier nor civilian, and flaunting its red flag in the face of science.”

Before 1918, Vaughan and many other doctors were extremely optimistic about their ability to combat disease. Although infectious diseases still accounted for a larger percentage of deaths in the United States than they do today, advances in medicine and sanitation had made doctors and scientists confident that they could one day largely eliminate the threat of these diseases.

The flu pandemic changed all that. “It was, for [Vaughan], a really traumatic event that made him question his profession and what he thought he had known about the possibilities of modern medicine,” says Nancy Bristow, chair of the history department at the University of Puget Sound and author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.

The 1918 flu is conspicuously absent from other doctors’ books, too. Hans Zinsser, who worked for the Army Medical Department during the pandemic, didn’t discuss it in Rats, Lice and History, his 1935 book about the role of disease in history.

“One of the reasons I think that we didn’t talk about the flu for 100 years was that these guys weren’t talking about it,” says Carol R. Byerly, author of Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I. “They would say, ‘we really didn’t have much infectious disease, except for the flu;’ and ‘our camp did very well, except for that flu epidemic.’”

READ MORE: Why the Second Wave of the 1918 Spanish Flu Was So Deadly

The Spanish Flu Was Deadlier Than WWI (TV-PG; 5:42)

Few Personal Stories Were Published

It wasn’t just doctors. No one really wanted to talk or write about what it was like to live through the flu. Newspaper articles about the pandemic didn’t usually describe the personal stories of those who died or survived, says J. Alex Navarro, assistant director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan and one of the editors-in-chief of The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital …read more


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