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Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I

Carol R. Byerly
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 251
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qfjw3
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  • Book Info
    Fever of War
    Book Description:

    The influenza epidemic of 1918 killed more people in one year than the Great War killed in four, sickening at least one quarter of the world's population. In Fever of War, Carol R. Byerly uncovers the startling impact of the 1918 influenza epidemic on the American army, its medical officers, and their profession, a story which has long been silenced. Through medical officers' memoirs and diaries, official reports, scientific articles, and other original sources, Byerly tells a grave tale about the limits of modern medicine and warfare.The tragedy begins with overly confident medical officers who, armed with new knowledge and technologies of modern medicine, had an inflated sense of their ability to control disease. The conditions of trench warfare on the Western Front soon outflanked medical knowledge by creating an environment where the influenza virus could mutate to a lethal strain. This new flu virus soon left medical officers' confidence in tatters as thousands of soldiers and trainees died under their care. They also were unable to convince the War Department to reduce the crowding of troops aboard ships and in barracks which were providing ideal environments for the epidemic to thrive. After the war, and given their helplessness to control influenza, many medical officers and military leaders began to downplay the epidemic as a significant event for the U. S. army, in effect erasing this dramatic story from the American historical memory.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-6705-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  6. Prologue: Eddie
    (pp. 1-3)

    When he went to war in 1917, Ward J. MacNeal, M.D., Ph.D., was a professor of pathology and bacteriology at New York Graduate Medical School.¹ The author of a textbook on microbiology and a leading researcher on pellagra, a nutritional disease, MacNeal joined the Medical Reserve Corps as a captain and was soon assigned to help set up and run the central medical laboratory for the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in Dijon, France. At the age of thirty-six, MacNeal said good-bye to his wife, Mabel, and three sons in Forest Hills, New York, and traveled to Europe. In Dijon he...

  7. Introduction
    (pp. 4-13)

    As army medical officer Ward J. MacNeal well knew, the miseries of disease have accompanied the miseries of war throughout human history. Theconquistadoresbrought with them disease which devastated the New World; British colonial armies attempted to use smallpox against Native Americans in the eighteenth century; typhus plagued Napoleon’s armies; typhoid fever humiliated the American army during the Spanish-American War; and the effects of Agent Orange are a legacy of the Vietnam War. The First World War was no exception. As the war lengthened from months into years, many physicians stood alert to disease outbreaks among both military and...

  8. 1 Medical Heroes: Medical Officers’ Confidence as They Prepare for War
    (pp. 14-38)

    In April 1918, Army Surgeon General William Crawford Gorgas received a letter from Major General Hugh Scott, commander of the Seventy-eighth Division at Camp Dix in New Jersey, who was worried about disease in his camp. “I feel perturbed over the pneumonia and scarlet fever situation…. No one here seems to be able to give me a cause sufficient for the effects I see—the camp is as clean as a hound’s tooth.” He described the sanitation measures he had ordered in the camp and asked Gorgas to “come over to give us the once over and I will feel...

  9. 2 Building a Healthy Army: Government Control and Accountability
    (pp. 39-68)

    Victor Vaughan, dean of the University of Michigan School of Medicine, veteran of the Spanish-American War, yellow-fever survivor, member of the Typhoid Commission, and proud advocate of modern medicine, began to warn the medical community and public officials about the dangers of infectious disease in army training camps as soon as the United States declared war on Germany in 1917. From his favorite forum, theJournal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine, which he established in 1915, he warned that “the mobilization of raw, untrained men and their hurried transformation into effective soldiers have always been accompanied by marked increase in...

  10. 3 Worst-Case Scenario: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 in the Camps
    (pp. 69-96)

    By 1918, the world war was dragging on into its fourth horrible year. In 1914 a war of movement and territory settled into a war of attrition fought in an enormous network of filthy trenches. Chemical warfare emerged in 1915, and in 1916 the battles of Verdun and the Somme claimed perhaps a million lives, yet gained no territory for either side. In 1917, the French army mutinied, refusing to undertake any more offensive drives into German machine gunfire, Russia was in revolution, and, for Britain, the volunteer army of 1914 had become an army of conscripts drafted to feed...

  11. 4 Fighting Germs and Germans: Influenza in the American Expeditionary Forces
    (pp. 97-124)

    Colonel Jefferson Kean, deputy chief surgeon of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) and chief army liaison with the American Red Cross, was one of the few army officers who tracked infectious disease across the AEF. A medical inspector during the Spanish-American War and Walter Reed’s first yellow fever patient, he knew the power and danger of infectious disease.¹ His war diary created a telegraphic record of the development of the influenza epidemic in France. In late May, he noted the first wave of the flu, “Mild epidemic of ‘three-day-fever’ since April 15th, causing no deaths.”² In June he made only...

  12. 5 Postmortem: The Trauma of Failure, 1918–1919
    (pp. 125-152)

    As Surgeon General Merritte Ireland fought off his case of the flu and faced reporters in the Port of New York, medical officers cared for the sick and sought to stem the spread and the death toll of the influenza epidemic in France. Epidemiologists such as Ward J. MacNeal at the AEF’s central laboratory in Dijon stood at the center of the storm, bearing the brunt of the army’s responsibility for investigating the epidemic in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). MacNeal received the first reports of the “fever of unknown origin” in the spring of 1918, traveled to the sites...

  13. 6 “Except for the Flu …”: Writing the History of the Epidemic
    (pp. 153-180)

    The responsibility for writing the history of the successes—and failures—of military medicine during the Great War fell to army surgeon general Merritte Ireland, and any account would include reports on the influenza epidemic in the army at home and abroad. But the meaning of the flu epidemic was not self-evident to Ireland, his medical officers, or anyone else, and was in many ways mysterious; an event and an experience needing explanation.¹ Ireland’s approach to writing this history is revealed in a speech he gave to an influential audience, the American Medical Editors’ Association, in April 1920, eighteen months...

  14. Conclusion: Memory and the Politics of Disease and War
    (pp. 181-190)

    On 19 September 1918, twenty-one-year-old Private Roscoe Vaughan reported to sick call at Camp Jackson, South Carolina, feeling achy and feverish.¹ Medical officers promptly hospitalized him along with eighty-two other soldiers that day. Influenza had reached the camp only the day before and followed the familiar pattern. It swept the camp quickly, sending 1,000 men to the hospital the first week, and ultimately sickened more than 10,000 of the 38,000 men in the camp.² Influenza cases peaked after four weeks, and pneumonia cases peaked a week later. Medical officers at Camp Jackson implemented a special treatment program for respiratory diseases,...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 191-226)
  16. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 227-236)
  17. Index
    (pp. 237-250)
  18. About the Author
    (pp. 251-251)