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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Flu Resources

RESOURCES

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Seasonal Flu

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Influenza (flu)

NEWS

Flu Activity Picks Up Nationwide.  CDC recommends vaccination and antiviral treatment against influenza (CDC)

Flu season on brink of epidemic (Denver Post)

Drugmakers report U.S. shortages of flu vaccine, Tamiflu (Reuters)

Flu Widespread, Leading a Range of Winter’s Ills (New York Times)