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Lessons of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918

March 11, 2007

Tags HealthU.S. HistoryPhilosophy and Methodology

Mystery solved. I first heard about the deadly flu pandemic of 1918 in an obscure blues song from that era. As I learned more about it, like that it was the worst pandemic in world history, I wondered why there was relative silence about this horrifying event, relative to, say, World War I and the Great Depression about which any schoolchild learns. Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac gives this rather strong clue:

Historians believe at least 500,000 people died in the United States alone. That's more than the number of Americans killed in combat in all the wars of the 20th century combined...

No one is sure exactly how many people died, because it wasn't even clear at the time what the disease was. World War I was currently under way, and there were rumors that German soldiers had snuck into Boston Harbor and released some new kind of germ weapon. One of the strangest aspects of the pandemic in this country was that it was barely reported in the media. President Woodrow Wilson had passed laws to censor all kinds of news stories about the war, and newspaper editors were terrified of printing anything that might cause a scandal.

So as the flu epidemic spread across the country. In large cities, people were dying of the flu so rapidly that undertakers ran out of coffins, streetcars had to be used as hearses, and mass graves were dug. The newspapers barely commented on it. In the fall of 1918, doctors tried to get newspapers to warn people in Philadelphia against attending a parade. The newspapers refused. In the week after the parade, almost 5,000 Philadelphians died of the flu.

The shipping of soldiers from base to base around the country seemed to have helped spread the infection. [This sentence is in the audio broadcast but not in the notes on the web page.]

So here is my hypothesis. The statist establishment has determined that various pro-state lessons can be drawn from WWI and the Depression so these events are discussed ad nauseam. The Influenza Pandemic, though, is largely forgotten as it rather obviously teaches different lessons:

  • The state distorts health information, either playing down something truly serious as in this case or playing up something that is actually no big deal as with the recent bird flu hysteria.
  • War, as it has been through the ages, is strongly associated with disease.
  • The mass media is not always a vigilant watchdog of the state. It is sometimes, in fact, a rather craven lapdog of the state.
  • The state's latest crusade is more important to it than responding to actual threats to the American people.

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