Bristow (History/Univ. of Puget Sound; Making Men Moral: Social Engineering During the Great War, 1996) unpacks the complex cultural, social and scientific effects of the 1918 influenza epidemic and reveals the American voices that fill the gap of a suppressed national memory.
In less than two years, influenza killed more than 50 million people worldwide, shocking existing medical infrastructures and destabilizing the trust that citizens had in science. Physicians were at a loss to prescribe effective treatments; racial and gender divides grew as misunderstandings about the spread of disease exacerbated existing stereotypes; and fear of contagion threatened to collapse the kind of community support that had helped the nation endure past hardships. Simultaneously, the rise of public health care employed the rhetoric of opportunity and optimism, further destabilizing social boundaries as the death rate climbed. A combination of media emphasis on looking toward the future and a public call for increased funding for new scientific research assisted in whitewashing the deep sense of loss and despair that afflicted most Americans as they dealt with the aftermath of the pandemic. Bristow, whose great-grandparents succumbed to influenza in 1920, writes with depth and feeling. By researching dozens of primary sources, she reveals the human circumstances and personal stories behind the history of this tragic era. It's a much-needed addendum to pandemic literature and an important perspective to understand as new and ever-evolving flu strains hover over our collective understanding of disease.
Well-researched and insightful.