The Devastation of Influenza in 1918 Massachusetts

Categories: DeathHealthInfluenza

During the latter part of the year in Massachusetts, 1918, all hell broke loose. Jane Brox, the author of the devastating essay “Influenza 1918,” describes the influenza that happened in her hometown before she was born as she states “the flu cut right through, spreading ahead of its own rumors, passing on a handshake and on the wind and with the lightest kiss.” (Brox 80). The flu was airborne and unstoppable. Deadly, the small hospitals began to fill up with patients sickened and contaminated with the virus more and more each day, the townspeople were scared for their lives, doctors were not even recording the names of the deceased anymore because there were so many victims, gauze masks used to help prevent the contamination sold out from every store, they did nothing.

Chaos! Everyone was on their own, praying to God that they would not catch the virus each and every time they took a step outside and also every time they put something to their mouth.

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According to the documentary provided by the American Experience program, “It was the worst epidemic this country has ever known. It killed more Americans than all the wars this century—combined.” (“Influenza 1918” 1).

Though this epidemic seemed to be one of the biggest tragedies that America has seen since the Civil War, the majority of Americans simply are not aware of the Influenza of 1918 because despite the fact that the epidemic was in the collective consciousness of the nation in 1918 like World War I, an event that the majority of Americans today are aware of, the epidemic was experienced individually and therefore not taught in grade-school textbooks, the war at the time seemed to be more important in the country’s eyes, and that America simply just does not support it.

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Grade school is the primary source where the majority of Americans learn about historical history. Seeing as the majority of Americans are still unaware of the influenza epidemic of 1918, this suggests that this epidemic is not taught in grade school today. Dr. Alfred Crosby, author of American’s Forgotten Pandemic, suggests why he believes America is unaware of the incident. He suggests, “It is in the individual memory of a great many of us, but it’s not in our collective memory.” (“Influenza 1918” 19).

By this, Crosby insists that the deaths from the influenza were pointless; whereas, for example, when a soldier dies, they die because they were serving their nation; when a sickened person dies, they die without a reason. Dr. Shirley Fannin, an epidemiologist on the same topic says, “It’s probably because it was so awful while it was happening, so frightening, that people just got rid of the memory.” (“Influenza 1918” 19). Each death that occurred happened so quickly and in multitudes that doctors began distinguishing the deceased by their address’s street name, age, or nationality just to save time as they saw their other hundreds of cases each day. It could be a possibility that America does not like to have these reoccurring tragic memories involving the influenza epidemic of 1918 because there was no way to stop it and no one to blame but America themselves. During this time period, all the American government most guiltily cared about was winning the war.

World War I, also known as the Great War at the time, took over all the attention of the people, drafting every fit soldier and doing whatever they could to win the war. The influenza took away the attention of the people for a few months while it outraged but overall the country was still focused on winning the war more importantly. Crosby mentions, “There were two enormously important things going on at once and they were at right angles to each other. One, of course, was the influenza epidemic, which dictated that you should sort of shut everything down and the war which demanded that everything should speed up, that certainly the factories should continue operating, you should continue to have bond drives, soldiers should be put on boats and sent off to France.

It’s as if we could, as a society, only contain one big idea at a time and the big idea was the war.” (“Influenza 1918” 7). The government forced the people to work, causing them to risk their lives by getting sick and because the influenza was airborne there was no way to stop the deadly contamination. As stated by the narrator of the documentary, “With the war escalating, federal officials continued to put Americans at risk. One September day, they called 13 million young men to register for the draft. The men jammed together in school houses, city halls, post offices.” (“Influenza 1918” 7). Being in such tight quarters with the sick, numerous amounts of soldiers became sick as well. On top of being scared for their lives of catching the influenza at home, many young Americans were also terrified of catching the influenza during the war.

Another reason why most Americans are not aware of the influenza today is simply because America does not support the epidemic. For example, America has many memorials, statues, and graveyards for the fallen soldiers throughout America’s history, but none remain for the influenza of 1918. There is no granted holiday either to remember the lives lost and cherished as they suffered from the flu. Brox mentions her father, “Out of nowhere he mentions the lights of the tent hospital, as if he could still see them, strange and clear.” (Brox 86).

Seeing as it was one of the greatest losses America as a nation has ever suffered, the thought that there is no evidence or memorial for the fallen is just devastating and disrespectful. 9-11, America’s most recent catastrophe is still remembered today by the majority of the population in America and should never be forgotten. America has presented memorials located around the city of New York to help remember what once has happened that very sad day.

As the epidemic was experienced individually, it was chosen not to be taught in grade-school textbooks, and because the mighty war at the same time seemed to be more important in the country’s greedy eyes, people today began to forget what truly happened so long ago, and that fact that America does not support the influenza by creating memorials or by at least offering a day of the year to help remember the fallen victims simply puts an outlook on life of what America, as a nation, is really supporting.

It comes to the conclusion that the majority of Americans truly never learned of the influenza epidemic of 1918 and are not aware of the true suffering that the many, many people went through as they sickened day by day and had to fight the airborne virus out there that was creeping around everything and anything as they lived their lives terrified of the true remorse that they felt from the fallen victims of the influenza: family members, friends, coworkers, neighbors, children, political figures, and much, much more people died from this event in such a short amount of time that caused such an epidemic struggle created by the fear that was risen up inside of them all.

Works Cited
Brox, Jane. “Influenza 1918.” One Hundred Great Essays. 5th ed. Ed. Robert Diyanni. Boston: Peason, 2013. 79-86. Print.
“Influenza 1918.” Prod. and Dir. Robert Kenner. Narr. Linda Hunt. American
Experience. PBS. N.p. Web. 15 October 2013. DVD. PDF file. Transcript.

Updated: Apr 29, 2023
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The Devastation of Influenza in 1918 Massachusetts. (2016, May 09). Retrieved from

The Devastation of Influenza in 1918 Massachusetts essay
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