The 1918 Influenza Pandemic
The United States entered the War in 1918 and brought influenza to America that medical historian Roy Porter has called “the greatest single demographic shock mankind has ever experienced, the most deadly pestilence since the Black Death.” In the late nineteen thirties, members of the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), interviewed people who remembered surviving the pandemic.  They described a world caught off guard. Newly established “base camps” became makeshift hospitals and morgues. Doctors, embalmers, laundresses and florists did a brisk trade. Public venues closed, and as entire families became ill, mothers, husbands and soldiers remember coping with quarantines and loss of family. Sufferers put great stock in their ability to treat themselves as doctors and other health officials struggled with ineffective prevention and treatment strategies. For them, the flu of 1918 marked a major life change but it also became a testament to their ability to survive.
The flu came fast and it hit hard. Dr. Curtis Atkinson, then a First Lieutenant in the Medical Corps at Fort Riley, Kansas remembered the first military quarantines. “When the 'flu' epidemic struck Call Field, Sunday, December, 1918, the boys began to come down very rapidly. A foot ball game was in progress. The commanding officer immediately ordered the game stopped and sentinels posted at the gate of the field with orders that no one was to be admitted.” Another soldier, Dr. William W. Wood remembered soldiers and civilians “dying like sheep.” Melinda Parker remembers how fast she lost her husband. “My husband… was workin' at the shipyards in Algiers an' he got the flu an' in four days, he was dead from pneumonia. I was always a good church worker an' one night I went out to a meetin' an' when I came back, I found him in bed with fever.” The speed with which the flu changed lives distinguished it from other life events.
Some interviewees referred to the flu as a plague. Rouldus Richmond, a supply sergeant sailing from New York to Brest remembered, “We flew the yellow flag all the way, the plague flag.” James Hughes, a Shoe Laster from Lynn, Massachusetts asked his interviewer, “D’ya remimber the flu thet come the tame a the war? Alwiays a war brengs somethin' an' I alwiays thought thet flu wuzn't jest the flu. It wuz more laike the bumbatic pliague (bubonic plague).” J.R.Meers from Texas remembered losing a friend to the war. ”When he got the call to go into the war, he said to me. ‘I'm going over, but I'll never come back.’ He didn't; he died in France of the flu.” For these survivors, the war and the flu seemed to be one experience of a plague of biblical proportions.
The enormity of the loss of human life remained abstract until it...