Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Influenza and Inequality

Influenza and Inequality: One Town's Tragic Response to the Great Epidemic of 1918

Patricia J. Fanning
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 184
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Influenza and Inequality
    Book Description:

    The influenza epidemic of 1918 was one of the worst medical disasters in human history, taking close to thirty million lives worldwide in less than a year, including more than 500,000 in the United States. What made this pandemic even more frightening was the fact that it occurred when death rates for most common infectious diseases were diminishing. Still, an epidemic is not merely a medical crisis; it has sociological, psychological, and political dimensions as well. In Influenza and Inequality, Patricia J. Fanning examines these other dimensions and brings to life this terrible episode of epidemic disease by tracing its path through the town of Norwood, Massachusetts. By 1918, Norwood was a small, ethnically diverse, industrialized, and stratified community. Ink, printing, and tanning factories were owned by wealthy families who lived privileged lives. These industries attracted immigrant laborers who made their homes in several ethnic neighborhoods and endured prejudice and discrimination at the hands of native residents. When the epidemic struck, the immigrant neighborhoods were most affected; a fact that played a significant role in the town’s response—with tragic results. This close analysis of one town’s struggle illuminates how even wellintentioned elite groups may adopt and implement strategies that can exacerbate rather than relieve a medical crisis. It is a cautionary tale that demonstrates how social behavior can be a fundamental predictor of the epidemic curve, a community’s response to crisis, and the consequences of those actions.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-022-2
    Subjects: Sociology, History, Health Sciences

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-ix)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvii)
    (pp. 1-12)

    Norwood, Massachusetts, is, in many ways, the quintessential New England town. It started as a village with a mill, surrounded by small farms. In the late nineteenth century it became an industrial center run by Yankee captains of industry and populated by immigrant workers. Originally, Norwood was part of the older community of Dedham, founded in 1636 and known as the South Parish or South Dedham. In 1872 , its industries beginning to grow, it became an independent township.¹

    The immigrant populations of Norwood shaped its new identity. First came the Germans, who in the mid-nineteenth century were attracted by...

    (pp. 13-26)

    Thursday, September 19, 1918, marked the beginning of the influenza epidemic in Norwood, although at the time few were aware of it. As the quiet summer was ending, news of the war in Europe, the Eugene V. Debs espionage trial, and a contentious debate over woman suffrage dominated the national headlines. Debs, the nation’s most popular Socialist and one of the founders of the International Workers of the World (IWW), was in jail for his opposition to the war. Women too were agitating for change and challenging the power structure. Locally, the war took center stage. Changes in the allotment...

    (pp. 27-38)

    There has always been confusion about how the town of Norwood came to be named. In December of 1903, one respected schoolteacher and historian explained that the moniker had been proposed by a local businessman, Tyler Thayer, who had reportedly researched the name and found there was only one other community so designated in the United States. Additionally, he had argued that the name looked and sounded good and was easy to write.¹ Several other proposed names met the “ease of sound and pen” requirements, including Ames, Oakland, Glenwood, Elmwood, and Lyman. Nearly twenty years later, Francis O. Winslow, a...

    (pp. 39-51)

    The rest of Norwood viewed activity in South Norwood as if it were a foreign country. According to a 1916 newspaper report, “a great number of people have never visited this section of town,” an indication both of how rapidly the neighborhood had developed and how isolated and segregated its residents were.¹ The area was foreign in its language, its customs, and even its architecture. Here there were multifamily houses, three-deckers, and storefronts with apartments above them. Even George Willett, the inspirational leader who revamped the town governmentally and physically, could not change the destiny of the area. According to...

    (pp. 52-67)

    During the first week of the 1918 flu epidemic in Norwood, eight residents died, and all but one were immigrants or the children of immigrants. Before officials could respond, word spread quickly through the multiethnic enclave of South Norwood that a terrible scourge had arrived.

    Lithuanian nationals had begun to move into Norwood around 1900.¹ According to the memoir of early Lithuanian immigrant Vincas Kudirka, just ten Lithuanians then lived in South Norwood, which was still a largely undeveloped area consisting of about fourteen houses, a small schoolhouse, and farmland. Those first Lithuanian residents began a chain migration as word...

    (pp. 68-82)

    Founded as a war-preparedness organization and best known for its Night Rider patrols in search of subversives in South Norwood, the Committee of Public Safety spearheaded the community’s response to the epidemic. By September 28, the Town Manager and the Chief of Police felt the situation was veering out of control. That night, at their request, the committee created the Special Committee on the Epidemic Situation, and Herbert Plimpton was elected its chairman. The town’s response rapidly focused on a centralized emergency plan. Since the Norwood Hospital was filled to capacity and its staff and nurses already overworked, the town...

    (pp. 83-94)

    The Epidemic Committee met daily to discuss the logistics of the town’s response. A running tally, acknowledged as less than accurate, was kept of admissions, deaths, and discharges at the Emergency Hospital. Compensation for nurses and nursing assistants were authorized. Similar proposals for the State Guard and the Norwood teachers who had volunteered were dismissed. It was felt that the Guardsmen “were performing a duty that naturally devolved upon them when they became members of the State Militia” and the teachers “were already receiving pay through the School Committee.” Should the teachers request further compensation, “even for overtime,” the Epidemic...

    (pp. 95-105)

    While the interments of the flu victims were being arranged, the Epidemic Committee continued to deal with the epidemic, which was abating. Admissions declined at the Emergency Hospital so that on Monday, October 14 , for the first time since the opening of the facility, there were no admissions and no deaths reported. On that same day, the Epidemic Committee authorized the erection of tents for convalescing patients. By the next day there were five tents housing nine male patients on the Civic grounds while one tent on the roof just outside the women’s ward housed three female patients. There...

    (pp. 106-116)

    The 1918 influenza epidemic was short-lived, but its impact on social and political thought and action was profound. Across the country the epidemic uncovered a variety of social class and immigrant-related problems, including poverty, crowded living conditions, and illiteracy, which had previously been ignored or denied. As William Noyes pointed out, “In spite of the realization that the epidemic was a natural disaster, the American people reacted often by taking political action.”¹ More power was given to public health organizations that imposed, as in Norwood, more restrictive measures chiefly targeting the poor and immigrants. The already entrenched prejudice against these...

    (pp. 117-125)

    The 1918 influenza pandemic was one of the most deadly disease occurrences in medical history. It cost between 20 and 30 million lives and affected over half of the world’s population, all in less than a year. The United States alone lost well over 500,000 residents. As one historian put it, “Nothing else—no infection, no war, no famine—has ever killed so many in as short a period.”¹ This brevity makes the influenza pandemic an excellent case study in epidemic behavior. Its onset was sudden and frightening, reactions immediate and visceral. It was an epidemic episode condensed, the sociological...

    (pp. 126-130)

    One final aspect of the 1918 influenza epidemic needs to be addressed: its absence from the collective social memory of Americans. In all the wealth of our shared history, this cataclysmic event went almost unnoticed until recent disease outbreaks brought it to the forefront. Globally, some 20 to 30 million people died in 1918 of this unusually virulent strain of influenza. In the United States, the death toll was well over 500,000. Despite this massive loss of life, chronicles of the pandemic are missing from many, if not most, general histories of this period in national history. No mythology, no...

  16. APPENDIX ONE: Influenza Fatalities in Norwood, Massachusetts—Annual Town Report
    (pp. 131-134)
  17. APPENDIX TWO: Influenza Fatalities in Norwood, Massachusetts—Annual Town Report
    (pp. 135-136)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 137-162)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 163-167)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 168-168)