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.

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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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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Phrenology – Mid 19th to early 20th century

From the 1840s to the 1920s, the popular medical movement of Phrenology took hold in the U.S. During this time phrenology was similar to pop-psychology. Phrenology was the pseudo-science that claimed to be able to identify a person’s character by the bumps on their skull. The ‘evidence’ was the belief that the brain was made up of 37 unique organs that each controlled a behavior or personality trait. Many practitioners of Phrenology, including most famously the Fowler family, believed that the organs could be exercised and a person could have a better and happier life. It also had contemporary critics and a sinister side.

The Health Science Library has several distinctive artifacts from the mid-19th to early 20th Century practice of Phrenology on exhibit. Please visit the second floor rotunda to experience the past of Phrenology.

Paul Andrews, MA
Collection Development

Rare Book Profile: John Evelyn’s Fumifugium, or, The Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated.

John Evelyn’s Fumifugium, or, The Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated. (London: W. Godbid for Gabriel Bedel and Thomas Collins, 1661) is one of the first works ever written on the problem of air pollution.

John Evelyn (1620-1706) was an English country gentleman who wrote over 30 books on a wide variety of topics. He is best known for his diary, which was published a century after his death. He also wrote Sculptura, on engraving and etching, which introduced the process of mezzotint to England.  One of his major works, Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest-trees, and the Propagation of Timber, a work on forestry, timber, fruit trees, and cider making, was written for the Royal Society.

Educated in the Middle Temple, London and at Balliol College, Oxford, Evelyn left England in 1643 to avoid involvement in the English Civil War, and traveled in France and Italy. He returned to England in 1652, and published two Royalist pamphlets in 1659. After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he served on several commissions, including London street improvement, the Royal Mint, repair of old St. Paul’s, and a commission for sick and wounded mariners and prisoners of war in England’s Dutch Wars (1665-74).  He was a founding member of the Royal Society, and was appointed to its council by its first and second charters in 1662 and 1663.

Fumifugium is a slender pamphlet, dedicated to King Charles II. The first section discusses the nature of air and its effect on health and longevity. Evelyn then describes the smoke in London, especially industrial smoke from burning coal, and how it damaged people’s health, buildings, and even water. In the second section, he proposes solutions, including making fuel wood more available, and requiring the worst-polluting industries to relocate several miles outside the city. In the third section, he proposes improving the air by establishing gardens all over the city, with sweet-smelling blooming trees and shrubs as well as flower beds and even some food crops (but not cabbage, “whose rotten and perishing stalks have a very noisome and unhealthy smell”)

The Health Sciences Library’s copy of Fumifugium is the first edition. It was given to the library by Dr. James J. Waring, with his bookplate inside the front cover. It was once bound with other works in a larger volume, as evidenced by handwritten page numbers above the printed ones. It was rebound in brown calfskin with simple gilt tooling on the inner turndowns. A previous owner made corrections to the text by hand. A description typed from a bookseller’s catalog is affixed inside the back cover, as is an envelope containing a description of the book cut from a supplement to the journal Nature.

Rare materials are available to individuals or groups by appointment on Wednesday mornings and Thursday afternoons, or at other times by arrangement. To schedule an appointment, contact Emily Epstein, emily.epstein@ucdenver.edu or 303-724-2119.

[Emily Epstein, Cataloging Librarian]

EvelynFumifugium tp

Rare Book Profile: Arthur Hill Hassall’s Adulterations Detected, or, Plain Instructions for the Discovery of Frauds in Food and Medicine.

Arthur Hill Hassall’s Adulterations Detected, or, Plain Instructions for the Discovery of Frauds in Food and Medicine (London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts, 1857) brought the problem of food and drug adulteration in London to public attention and led to major public health reforms.

Arthur Hill Hassall (1817-1894) was an English physician, microscopist, chemist, and pioneer in public health and food safety. He made major contributions in botany and histology, conducted some of the earliest research in what would become the field of phytopathology and wrote the first English text on histology. His research and activism improved the safety of the English food and water supply, and he was a pioneer in the sanatorium treatment of tuberculosis in Europe.

The youngest son of a physician in Middlesex, Hassall left home in 1834 to study at the Dublin Medical School and apprentice with his uncle, Sir James Murray, and became interested in microscopy and botany. In 1845, he moved to London, where he established a medical practice and continued his botanical studies. His research resulted in books on freshwater algae (1845) and the quality of London’s water supply (1850).

Hassall then turned to the problem of food quality. In 1850, he tested several samples of coffee, demonstrating that, contrary to popular belief, it was possible to detect adulteration microscopically and chemically. Publication of these results in The Lancet led to his becoming the chief analyst of the Analytical Sanitary Commission. From 1851 through 1854, Hassall analyzed over 2500 samples of food and drink from various London vendors. Chemical tests identified alum in bread, iron, lead, and mercury compounds in cayenne pepper, and copper salts in bottled foods. Vendors of both adulterated and pure products were named in the resulting reports, which were published in The Lancet. In 1855, Hassall published revised and expanded versions of his reports in a book, Food and Its Adulterations, followed two years later by a new work, Adulterations Detected. His work raised public awareness of how common adulteration was, which led to the Food Adulteration Act of 1860. In 1874 Hassall became the founding president of the Society of Public Analysts, and gained fame giving expert testimony in support of further reforms and legislation.

In addition to his investigative work, Hassall maintained a private medical practice in London. He was also elected to the staff of the Royal Free Hospital in 1853, where he served for fifteen years. In 1866, flare-up of pulmonary tuberculosis, which he had contracted as a student in Dublin, interrupted his career for several months while he sought treatment in different places, finally ending up in Ventnor, on the Isle of Wight. A Ventnor, he devised an innovative design for sanatorium living quarters, and the following year organized fundraising and construction of the facility. The Royal National Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest opened in Ventnor in 1868. In 1877 Hassall retired from his position as Chief Physician of the hospital and moved his family to San Remo, Italy, where he continued to treat patients and write on climatic treatment of tuberculosis until his death.

The Health Sciences Library’s copy of Adulterations Detected is the first edition. It was rebound in gray linen ca. 1970 by the Head of Denison Library, Frank B. Rogers, with a gilt-tooled black leather label from the original binding on the spine, and a former owner’s armorial bookplate affixed inside the front cover.

Rare materials are available to individuals or groups by appointment on Wednesday mornings and Thursday afternoons, or at other times by arrangement. To schedule an appointment, contact Emily Epstein, emily.epstein@ucdenver.edu or 303-724-2119.

[Emily Epstein, Cataloging Librarian]

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