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Pandemic and Civic Virtue: The American Red Cross and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918

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This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

In 1918, the United States faced one of the worst public health challenges in its history. An influenza pandemic – also known as the Spanish flu – infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide, killing 20-50 million people, including hundreds of thousands of Americans.

In response to that crisis, the American Red Cross mobilized countless Americans to assist their fellow citizens. Historical primary sources provide examples of civic virtue–that is, of citizens dedicating themselves to the common welfare, even at the cost of their own interests. By examining such sources, students can reflect on how civic virtue was practiced in the past, and how the concept might apply today. 

Introduce students to the Spanish flu by asking them to examine this image of masked men near a Seattle street car.

Precautions taken in Seattle, Wash., during the Spanish Influenza Epidemic would not permit anyone to ride on the street cars without wearing a mask. 260,000 of these were made by the Seattle Chapter of the Red Cross which consisted of 120 workers, in three days.

As they produce observations, reflections, and questions, students may note the face masks and speculate that they are related to an infectious disease. They may wonder why the conductor is holding up his hand or what he is saying to the others. Introduce the caption and invite students to wonder about the extent of volunteer activities led by the Red Cross.

“Need Red Cross Workers to Make More Flu Masks,” The Seattle star., October 26, 1918

The Public Health Nurse She answers humanity’s call : Your Red Cross membership makes her work possible

Next, divide students into groups and invite them to analyze an additional source, responding to the focus question: “How did U.S. citizens serve their communities during the Spanish flu?” Some possible sources include:

Each group can then report their findings to the class. Then, point out that the American Red Cross was supported by the government with a mandate to provide public service, but managed privately, as it is today. Ask students to read the article “Red Cross Activities” and list reasons the article gives as to why the Red Cross handled the relief work described, such as their ability to mobilize volunteers and raise funds quickly, while giving citizens an opportunity to act upon their naturally philanthropic impulses.

Conclude by asking students to reflect on how government, voluntary organizations, and citizens worked together to tackle community problems in the past. What lessons about civic virtue emerge? How can these lessons be applied to their own role as citizens?


Comments (6)

  1. Thank you, Ms. Bell, for the lesson ‘Pandemic and Civic Virtue’ I am tweaking for my middle school students. The reading, research, and reflection assignment will be uploaded in google classroom this afternoon.

    LOC is an INVALUABLE scholarly resource.
    Thank you for all you do to advance knowledge,

    Donna P. Martin

    • Thank you for your comments. This post is actually written by my colleague Michael Apfeldorf. You can read some of his other posts at I’m sure he will be thrilled to hear about how the activities he suggested worked with your students.

  2. Most interesting visuals for use at multiple grade levels. I would like to suggest that the poster of the Public Health Nurse on horseback paired with pictures of the drive through corona testing sites. Discuss questions such as: How have changes in transportation impacted getting help to patients? How might medications be delivered to patients at their homes? What might be the strengths and weaknesses of each of these ideas?

  3. Our school district in Washington State is closed so I’m not able to use this with students at my K-2 school library. However, I sent the link to our high school history teacher to see if she might use this online for her students. I then recognized the sign on the street car in the photo is also the name of the neighborhood in Seattle where my brother lives today! But the biggest surprise was when I clicked on the link for “Red Cross Opens Influenza Hospital” and saw it was our small town newspaper in Colville, WA from 1918! One last thing, a small article in the newspaper was about the great uncle of our school secretary who was hit by a shrapnel shell in France during WWI and returned to Colville to live a long life.
    I always love getting your blog in my inbox but today was extra special. Thanks so much and be well!

  4. My grandmother Elizabeth Raneri apparently received some kind of an award for her services during the Spanish flu. How do I go about finding info on this?

    • You can check the local newspaper to see if it was mentioned. Try Chronicling America and see if your local newspaper is included in those that have been digitized. You could also check the archives of the organization that she received the award from to see if they made a notification in a report or other publication. A reference librarian or staff member at the historical society in the community where your mother received the award would also be able to help. Good luck.

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