“The Great Influenza” — Library Resources on the 1918 to 1919 Pandemic

This article draws on material from the Veterans History Project and the Library’s 2017 exhibit, “Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I.”

A nurse takes a patient’s pulse in the influenza ward at Walter Reed Hospital, Washington, D.C. , 1918 or 1919. Prints and Photographs Division.

The 1918 to 1919 influenza pandemic killed some 50 million people worldwide, with about 675,000 of those deaths in the United States, according to figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The Library records those terrible days in diaries, veterans oral histories, books, photographs, prints, newspaper stories and an array of other documents.

Tonight at 8 p.m. (ET) on the Library’s Facebook account, John M. Barry, a prizewinning historian of and author of “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” discusses the 1918 pandemic and what it can teach us about the coronavirus. He’ll be in conversation with David Rubenstein. The program will repeat this Saturday, April 11, at 3 p.m. (ET). The conversation will also be available on our YouTube channel and will be archived for viewing on Facebook, YouTube and the Library’s website.

Alice Duffield. Veterans History Project.

It’s been a hundred years, but the immediacy of the documents in the Library’s collections can take the breath away. Alice L. Mikel Duffield served as a Captain in the Army Nurse Corps at Camp Pike, Arkansas, when influenza ravaged the place. The camp, a staging ground for soldiers both heading to the conflict and returning from it, sometimes held as many as 100,000 troops. At one point, there were so many bodies in the morgue, she told the Veterans History Project in 2002, that they couldn’t keep up with the living or the dead.

“You couldn’t find room in the morgue for all the patients,” she said, recounting an incident when a corpse fell on one orderly. “…We couldn’t possibly have had enough help with as many as were sick! It was just too many.”

Red Cross nurse with a bus transport of patients, 1918 or 1919. Photo: Lewis Hine. Prints and Photographs Division.

The Library’s Red Cross collection documents how nurses were often on the front line of the battle against the disease. Nearly 24,000 Red Cross nurses enrolled for military service. After Germany surrendered on Nov. 11, 1918, the Red Cross continued working with the U.S. Public Health Service to provide nurses and motor corps workers until the pandemic receded in 1919.

Some of the pandemic’s overlap with World War I was presented in the Library’s “Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I” exhibit in 2017. The pandemic wasn’t started by the conflict but was spread by the vast movements of civilians and soldiers across continents.

One of those in transit was Dorothy Kitchen O’Neill. An American Red Cross volunteer, she sailed for Europe in October of 1918 — a month in which, incredibly, 195,000 Americans died of the flu. She and forty other women came down with influenza on the voyage. Four died. Dorothy wrote to her family on October 10, 1918: “Forty girls came down with the Influenza and if it had not been for the little unit of fifteen R.C. nurses — goodness knows what might have happened.” She continues: “I was down for a week and have only been up for two days so feel shaky.”

Dorothy Kitchen O’Neill letter to her family. Manuscript Division. 

The Library’s Chronicling America archive captures newspapers of the day, far and wide, and how they reported life around them. In the summer of 1919, fearing a deadly relapse in the fall like the kind that had devastated the country the year before, thousands of people wrote to their congressional representatives, demanding action on a “flu bill.” On July 29, The Bismarck Tribune (Bismarck, North Dakota) urged its readers to join the letter-writing campaign in an article on the front page, above the fold. One of the leaders of the bill was U.S. Sen. Warren G. Harding (R-Ohio), who would be elected as president in 1920. He died of a heart attack on Aug. 2, 1923, while on a public speaking tour in San Francisco. He was 57 and had been suffering from pneumonia — often caused by the flu.

Front page of The Bismarck Tribune, July 29, 1919. Chronicling America.

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