Media Resource

BackStory: Forgotten Flu—America and the 1918 Pandemic

The Oakland Municipal Auditorium was use as a temporary hospital during the 1918 flu epidemic. Photo by Edward A. "Doc" Rogers.
Photo caption

The Oakland Municipal Auditorium served as a temporary hospital during the 1918 flu epidemic. Photo by Edward A. "Doc" Rogers.

This episode of BackStory entitled "Forgotten Flu: America and the 1918 Pandemic" takes listeners into the flu pandemic of 1918 that killed nearly 675,000 people in the United States. Consider the essential question: How do the measures taken by health officials in 1918 and 1919 compare to contemporary responses to pandemics? We provide the audio recording, a listening guide, and connections to resources for investigating pandemics in world history.  

Audio file

A full transcript of this episode can be found at the BackStory website.

In the Grip of Death (00:00-07:06)

This segment of the BackStory episode on the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 looks at the origins of the outbreak and the misnomer that somehow Spain was responsible for the global health crisis. 

Analysis Questions:

1. What symptoms did soldiers experience?

2. How did doctors and nurses respond to the rapid and far-reaching outbreak?

3. Why was the pandemic labeled the "Spanish Flu"?

A collection of newspaper articles from 1918 and 1919 about the flu pandemic can be found at Chronicling America, including a poem published in the North Mississippi Herald on November 8, 1918 entitled "It's All the Spanish Flu" by Dr. S.J. Smith. 

Fighting the Flu (07:07-17:55)

This segment includes an interview with Nancy Bristow, a historian at the University of Puget Sound and the author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic. Focus is given to the medical community’s response to the pandemic and why this particular strand of flu was so difficult to understand and contain.

Analysis Questions:

1. What specific measures were taken by local health boards and why?

2. To what extent were these measures effective in reducing infection? 

3. What role did gender play regarding the health care profession and responding to the flu pandemic?

4. How had medicine and public health changed at the start of the twentieth century and what did this mean regarding preparedness for a global health crisis?

The PBS American Experience film "Influenza 1918" gives viewers a look at the public health, economic, political, and international ramifications of the global flu pandemic that killed millions. 

Tomb of the Unknown Nurse (18:00-23:20)

How did the global flu pandemic of 1918 come to be a "forgotten pandemic" in world history? This segment explores how advances in medicine and public health have changed how we understand pandemics and the seriousness of the flu.

Analysis Questions:

1. Why has history forgotten those who died due to the flu and the health professions who treated millions of people?

2. How do the medical treatments and public health responses used in 1918 and 1919 compare to contemporary responses to pandemics?

3. How should we teach about and commemorate public health events? 

Rest in Peace (23:25-33:05)

Historian James Higgins describes how influenza devastated Philadelphia’s population and how the city recruited the Catholic Church to help bury the thousands of dead.

Analysis Questions:

1. Why was the infection and death rate in Philadelphia, PA so high?

2. What problems did the death toll cause with regard to burial?

3. What can be done to better educate the public about major health crises in U.S. history?

Once and Future Flu (33:10-43:40)

The last segment of this episode includes an interview with virologist John Oxford, who discusses how and why the 1918 influenza pandemic spread worldwide. Questions about contemporary outbreaks and responses are also addressed. 

Analysis Questions:

1. Why did the flu virus of 1918 cause so many deaths?

2. What role did WWI play in the spread of the virus?

3. What public health decisions made during 1918-1919 are still used during contemporary pandemic responses?

4. What recent health events and pandemics compare to the flu pandemic of 1918 and how have public officials, individuals, and governments responded?

Learn more about the global Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic of 2020 at the Centers for Disease Control website.