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. 

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.


Subscribe to the blog to receive updates on future installments of this and other exciting news from the Strauss Health Sciences Library!