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American Pandemic

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American Pandemic
The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic. By Nancy K. Bristow. (Oxford University Press, New York: 2012. 304 pages, Illustrations.) ISBN: 978-0-1998-1134-2

Reviewed by Simone Bonim - May 9, 2012

In 1918, the first wave of an influenza outbreak that was to be dubbed Spanish Influenza, began its trek around the globe. By the time it burned itself out in 1920, it is estimated that one-third of all people contracted the disease, and of these, at least fifty-million died worldwide. In American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, Nancy K. Bristow looks at how this pandemic affected Americans, and American psyche. In addition, she contends that we, as a nation, have forgotten many of the lessons learned from this pandemic and that steps should be taken to relearn that which has been lost. This book is the first step in recovering that forgotten knowledge.

A Professor of History at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, Bristow began this study in an effort to understand the experiences of her grandfather, who was orphaned when both of his parents died during the Spanish Flu pandemic. Using a social and cultural approach to this study, Bristow begins with an examination of the history of influenza and the impact of previous influenza pandemics in the United States. She then moves on to an examination of the 1918 pandemic itself, and the impact that it had on the lives of the countless patients that suffered through the disease. She looks at how the disease affected the family and friends of the victims, and the disruptions that it caused throughout society. Bristow also examines how the pandemic was viewed in the public media, and what people knew and understood about the pandemic.

Moving on from the social side of the pandemic, Bristow examines the role played by public health professionals in combating and treating the disease. How the disease was treated on the political front is also examined - from the implementation of mandatory public health measures to an easing of racial prohibitions, such as allowing/encouraging doctors of color (who were not allowed to join the armed forces) to treat white, civilian patients due to the shortage of white doctors. This shortage arose because so many doctors had been called up for military service that there was shortage of doctors on the home front. In the same vein, she also looks at the personal experiences of medical and pubic health professionals over the course of the pandemic.

American Pandemic concludes with a summary of the aftermath of the pandemic, how people dealt with - and made sense of - the impact of the pandemic. Most important, Bristow looks at why it is vital to understand and remember the lessons learned from the 1918 Influenza pandemic and how these lessons can be applied to future epidemics.

>From beginning to end, American Pandemic presents an intense and compelling overview of the impact that this pandemic had on Americans from every walk of life. Throughout this social history, Bristow makes use of copious letters, diaries, governmental documents, media sources, and much more in explaining the personal impact that this pandemic had on individual people and the country as a whole. Meticulously researched and eminently readable, this book is ideal for use by interested general readers and academic readers alike. For those seeking to explore this topic in greater detail, Bristow has included copious endnotes and an up-to-date select bibliography.

Related Reviews:

Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army During World War I, by Carol R. Byerly.
A gripping history of how the Influenza pandemic of 1918-19 affected the U.S. Army and the medical professionals, who found that they were unprepared to cope with such a devastating and wide-scale outbreak.

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, By Gina Kolata.
In this book, Kolata offers the reader an in-depth look at the 1918 influenza pandemic; including what influenza is, the effects that the epidemic had both politically and culturally, and its long term aftereffects.

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