Picture a country in the grip of a respiratory virus that is sweeping the globe. Schools are closed, theatres are dark, hospitals are straining to keep up with the demand. Death-counts are rising, and there is a running public debate about whether wearing a mask really does protect you. This certainly sounds like the life we are living today. But it also describes what Americans were facing more than a hundred years ago, during the influenza pandemic of 1918.
No two times in history are just the same, and neither are any two pandemics. The goal of this talk is to provide an overview of the 1918 flu pandemic, and to explore how it resembles, and how it differs from, our own experience with Covid—medically, socially, economically, and politically. How did American leaders respond to the epidemic in 1918? What part did World War I play in the story? What about the role of medicine and technology? How did individual communities grapple with the challenge? Overall, what can we learn from America's response to this long-ago health crisis—a crisis that resembles in so many ways the one we are facing today?
Sandra Opdycke, Ph.D. is a retired historian. She recently published When Women Won the Vote, about the woman suffrage movement. She has also written books about the flu epidemic of 1918, the WPA of the 1930s, and Bellevue Hospital, as well as a biography of Jane Addams, a historical atlas of American women's history, and several co-authored books and articles on social policy. She worked for a number of years at Hudson River Psychiatric Center, and later taught American History and Urban History at Bard, Vassar, and Marist Colleges. She serves as an occasional lecturer at the Center for Lifetime Studies in Poughkeepsie.