Forgetting the Influenza Epidemic of 1918

In this fourth and final installment on the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, Paul Andrews considers its enduring legacy–or lack thereof.


As the United States celebrated the end of the First World War on November 11th, 1918, they also celebrated the end of the worst of the Influenza Epidemic that killed so many. Although waves of influenza did still hit parts of the world through 1920, they were not as deadly as the strain that killed so many in 1918.  One theory posits that the strain that killed so many had taken all the victims it could, and mutated into something more benign.  As the worst of the effects of the epidemic faded, so did the memory. It’s as if the world had decided that it just wanted to forget the flu epidemic had happened at all. Alfred Crosby, in his 1976 book America’s Forgotten Pandemic wrote ‘the flu never inspired awe, not in 1918, and not since.’ The epidemic simply disappeared from the American consciousness.  With the exception of Katherine Anne Porter, and a few other writes, the epidemic was never part of American culture or public memory.

Why did one of the deadliest modern plagues simply disappear from memory? Some believe that it was because illness and death was still something familiar in the early 20th century, as it was in earlier times. The loss of so much life from a sickness, especially if the victim died at home, just didn’t impact individuals as much as that kind of death would affect us today. We rely on science and medicine to deal with illness more than ever today.  In 1918, science failed completely to find the cause or cure to the epidemic. Dr. Victor Vaughn, the head of the Army’s communicable disease division, said, when the worst of the plague was over, ‘Never again allow me to say that medical science is on the verge of conquering disease.’ The epidemic was a huge blow to the ego of doctors.  They could do nothing but watch the tragedy unfold.  About the only thing that could be done for the victims of the flu was bed rest, manage their pain, keep them warm, and to isolate them as much as possible.  While doctors could do little, it was nurses that took care of the sick and dying.

Elizabeth Onion believes this is another reason the Influenza Epidemic of 1918 was so quickly forgotten.  The true heroes of the disaster were women; nurses, and home caregivers.  Care of the sick at home has always been a thankless task, mainly left to women.  Today hospital and home care nurses act as care givers to those who don’t have that kind of support available. Onion writes ‘A close read of recent history suggests that the 20th century silence about the flu epidemic of 1918-19 shows how uneasy many Americans have been with failure, death, and loss, and how strongly most of the nation seems to prefer stories that celebrate heroic achievements to those that memorialize acts of caregiving.’ She also believes that the optimism that often typifies American behavior and culture made it easier for the country to simply forget the failure of an epidemic that ran out of control.

Hand in hand with this optimism is the belief people have about their own health.  After the 2009 swine flu epidemic, Mark Davis conducted a study of how people reacted to the flu outbreak that infected so many, but that had relatively few victims. His research showed that most people believe that their health choices- diet, exercise, and general good habits- allowed them to push through the worst of a flu. They believed flu was inevitable, but they would be able to survive it.

And flu is inevitable.  Seasonal flu has killed somewhere between 3,000 to 48,000 people in the last forty years.  The numbers are hard to pin down, because flu deaths are often misreported.  The 2009 H1N1 swine flu killed 60 people in Mexico.  One of the two major avian flu strains, H7N6, jumped to humans in 2013 in China, killing something between 1,030 to 2,400 people.  The threat of another epidemic is always present, and many believe that it’s not a matter of if another pandemic strikes, but when.  Science and medicine have may vast advancements in the last 100 years, and we are better prepared to deal with a crisis like the influenza epidemic as before, but we are still unable to know what vaccines will work against what flu strains. 

Although the history of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic is being studied more now than in the past, many of the lessons of the crisis have not been learned.  John Barry, author of the book The Great Influenza, believes that one of the most important lessons to learn from the 1918 epidemic was that government officials must be up front and honest with the public. He was asked to speak at an emergency preparedness event that centered on an epidemic, and made this clear, to the agreement of all the attendees. When the event started he was stunned that the first ‘statement’ drafted to the public was meant to minimize the threat of the disaster.  Even then, the lessons of 1918 weren’t learned. 

New Cytoscopy Exhibit on the 2nd Floor

Modern cystoscopy and endoscopy has its roots in a physician’s need for a better way to examine their patients internally, and the imagination that need drove.

The first scope for examination was created in 1804, and developments have not slowed. 

Visit the second floor rotunda on the South side of the Strauss Health Sciences Library to view a new exhibit exploring the history and development of cystoscopy equipment.

Strauss Health Sciences Library loan artifacts to Norlin Library

Norlin Library at the University of Colorado Boulder campus is exhibiting the National Library of Medicine’s exhibit Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries on the Second Floor from February 4 through March 16, 2019.  The Strauss Health Sciences Library is pleased to have lent some of the library’s artifacts to the exhibit, including our 1858 George Tiemann Surgical Equipment Co.  field surgical kit.  If you need an excuse to visit Boulder, be sure to visit Norlin and view the exhibit. 

https://www.colorado.edu/libraries/events/exhibits/binding-wounds-pushing-boundaries-african-americans-civil-war-medicine

Dr. Kildare Board Game Exhibit on 2nd Floor

Strauss Health Sciences Library’s Collection Development Technician, Paul Andrews is back with a brand new exhibit in the 2nd Floor rotunda!


Dr. Kildare ran for five seasons on NBC from 1961 to 1966.  The show starred Richard Chamberlin as Dr. James Kildare, a popular character created by writer Frederick Faust, the subject of a series of MGM films and radio series in the 30s and 40s.  Dr. Kildare took place at Blair General Hospital and told the story of a young intern learning how to be a doctor.

The Strauss Health Sciences Library has a Dr. Kildare game that was released by IDEAL in 1962.  The object of the game is to visit the rooms indicated on the Diagnosis Cards and collect Doctor Cards, which mark the rooms you’ve visited.  Once you have visited the thirteen rooms needed to make a diagnosis, you use the wheel to decode what is wrong with your patient.  The first one to collect and decipher their cards is the winner. 

Visit the second floor rotunda, on the south side of the library to view the Dr. Kildare Game exhibit.  If that sparks your need to play a board game, visit the Service Desk on the first floor, where you can check out Scrabble, Yahtzee, Chess, and Operation!


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Librarians in Print at the Strauss Health Sciences Library

Congratulations to Education & Reference Librarians Ben Harnke, Kristen DeSanto, Christi Piper, Nina McHale, and Lilian Hoffecker, who just published a featured article in Doody’s Core Titles about the recent changes to the department’s professional literature search service. The article, “Developing a Database for a Literature Search Service at an Academic Health Sciences Library,” details the process taken to revise and improve the organization of the Strauss Health Sciences Library’s search service for systematic reviews, grant proposals, book chapters, and other large publication projects.

Furthermore, DeSanto had an additional publication selected as a featured article with DCT on her role as a Clinical Librarian assisting inpatient teams in clinical rounding. In “Answering Questions at the Point of Care,” she provides an overview of her role as a librarian during clinical rounds, including the professional knowledge she brings to the role and the technologies and resources she uses the most in this unique setting.

Check out both of these articles in the links above, and join us in congratulating their hard work!

Katherine Anne Porter: An Account of the Influenza Epidemic of 1918 in Denver

In this third installment on the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, Paul Andrews takes a closer look at author Katherine Anne Porter, one of the epidemic’s many victims and a fortunate survivor.


Katherine Anne Porter was born in Indian Creek, Texas in 1890.  She moved to Chicago in 1914, and began working as an actress.  She returned to Texas in 1915, where she spent two years in a sanitarium while suffering from severe bronchitis.  While she was in the sanitarium, Katherine Anne Porter began to write, doing a gossip column and theatrical criticism for The Fort Worth Critic.  At the time of the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, Porter was living in Denver and writing for the Rocky Mountain News.

Katherine Anne Porter
before the epidemic

Katherine Anne Porter was one of the epidemic’s millions of victims.  She was cared for by her fiancé, a young Army lieutenant whose name remains a mystery.  She was ill for months, her fever so severe that her hair turned white, and eventually fell out.  She also suffered a broken arm when she fell, trying to get out of bed.  She developed phlebitis and was told she was never going to walk again.  When Katherine Anne Porter was finally moved to the hospital, she was so ill that the Rocky Mountain News wrote and type-set her obituary.  The young Army officer stayed by her side the entire time.  She spent six month in the hospital, but eventually her fever broke, her lungs cleared, and her arm and leg mended. She eventually returned to full health, although her hair remained white for the rest of her life. Tragically, her fiancé died.

The first edition of
Pale Horse, Pale Rider

After her recovery, Katherine Anne Porter moved to New York City, and began to write fiction.  She turned her experience of the epidemic into a short novel in 1939.  In Pale Horse, Pale Rider Porter tells the tale of Miranda, a newspaper writer in Denver, and her fiancé Adam, an Army officer.  As in her life, both become ill and Miranda lived, while Adam died.  It was perhaps a way for Porter to excise the memory of the epidemic.  She said the titles Pale Horse represented Death, who ‘takes away an entire era.’ Historian Alfred Crosby stated that Pale Horse, Pale Rider was such an excellent depiction of the epidemic that he dedicated his 1989 book America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 to Porter.  Additionally, literary critic Paul Russel observed that Katherine Anne Porter is the only great American writer of the early 20th Century to depict the Influenza Epidemic of 1918.   It is still considered one of the finest works of medical fiction.

A US stamp was issued to honor Katherine Anne Porter in 2006

Katherine Anne Porter died in 1980 at the age of 90.


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HSL Welcomes Brandon Kennedy to Access Services!

The Health Sciences Library is happy to welcome our new access services specialist, Brandon Kennedy. Brandon will be helping out at the service desk and facilitating our incoming and outgoing items with Prospector.

1_BRANDON-PROSPECTOR

To welcome him to the library, we asked Brandon a few questions:

What is your interest in libraries?

I’ve been volunteering and working in libraries ever since I was in middle school. I enjoy the calm/safe environment that libraries give. I always feel at home when I’m inside a library!

What do you like most about the HSL so far?

What I like the most about working here so far is that I’ve been learning almost non-stop. I enjoy the challenges being brought to me!

What is your educational background?

I attended the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and was a photography major with a minor in art history. I was very into commercial photography: specifically fashion photography. I was also really big indo the history of marketing/commercial photography, which sparked my interest in archiving/digitizing film.

What is your previous work experience?

One of my first “official” jobs was actually working at one of my university’s branch libraries, the Teacher Development and Resources Library. I worked there from my first week of my undergrad up until graduation. I also had a huge interest in graphic design during the first half of my undergrad so I worked with UNLV’s Athletic Department designing billboards, flyers, posters, media guides, etc. Working there also gave me the experience and opportunity to land an internship at UFC where I worked with their U.S. creative team (can you believe there’s only 7 members).

What’s a fun/unique/interesting tidbit that you would like others to know about you?

I’m new to Colorado, I moved here from Las Vegas in May. I’ll be adopting a female poodle puppy in December, still iffy on names. (Welcome to a few suggestions.)

How do you spend your free time?

Aside from photography, I’m a huge MMO gamer, currently my favorite games to play are Fate/Grand Order and Final Fantasy 14. I also like watching a bunch of anime from the 90s.

Is there any additional information you’d like to share about yourself?

I’m currently looking into grad schools that offer a MLIS, archiving, special collections, and digitization are my biggest interests.

What do you hope to gain from working at HSL?

I hope to gain a more in depth work experience at HSL, I want to learn more on what happens behind the service desk. I would also like to gain knowledge on how my background in photography/graphic design could be integrated in a library setting and what I could do to help.


Be sure to welcome Brandon to the library when you see him around!