American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

Nancy Bristow (Author)


Between the years 1918 and1920, influenza raged around the globe in the worst pandemic in recorded history, killing at least fifty million people, more than half a million of them Americans. Yet despite the devastation, this catastrophic event seems but a forgotten moment in our nation's past.

American Pandemic offers a much-needed corrective to the silence surrounding the influenza outbreak. It sheds light on the social and cultural history of Americans during the pandemic, uncovering both the causes of the nation's public amnesia and the depth of the quiet remembering that endured. Focused on the primary players in this drama--patients and their families, friends, and community, public health experts, and health care professionals--historian Nancy K. Bristow draws on multiple perspectives to highlight the complex interplay between social identity, cultural norms, memory, and the epidemic. Bristow has combed a wealth of primary sources, including letters, diaries, oral histories, memoirs, novels, newspapers, magazines, photographs, government documents, and health care literature. She shows that though the pandemic caused massive disruption in the most basic patterns of American life, influenza did not create long-term social or cultural change, serving instead to reinforce the status quo and the differences and disparities that defined American life.

As the crisis waned, the pandemic slipped from the nation's public memory. The helplessness and despair Americans had suffered during the pandemic, Bristow notes, was a story poorly suited to a nation focused on optimism and progress. For countless survivors, though, the trauma never ended, shadowing the remainder of their lives with memories of loss. This book lets us hear these long-silent voices, reclaiming an important chapter in the American past.

Product Details

Oxford University Press, USA
Publish Date
January 01, 2017
6.1 X 0.7 X 9.2 inches | 1.05 pounds
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About the Author

Nancy K. Bristow is Professor of History at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. She is the author of Making Men Moral: Social Engineering during the Great War. Bristow is the great-granddaughter of two of the pandemic's fatalities.


"A richly detailed picture of American society as it experienced an extraordinary trauma--one that shook a newly-established confidence in the efficacy of medicine and the responsiveness of civil society. Doctors, nurses, the friends and families of the sick all play a part in this carefully and imaginatively researched and lucidly written account of America's last great epidemic."--Charles Rosenberg, Harvard University

"Bristow has written a thoroughly researched and readable book documenting how different groups of Americans experienced and then remembered the influenza epidemic of 1918. Replete with large amounts of new information, this book is a major contribution to the historiography of both the flu and epidemic diseases more broadly."--Barron H. Lerner, author of The Breast Cancer Wars

"A gifted story-teller, Bristow shows how the 1918 influenza pandemic affected Americans of all walks of life. American Pandemic is a masterful work of social and medical history that reminds why this dramatic episode matters to public health and the national imagination."--Alexandra Minna Stern, University of Michigan

"Well written, engaging....Recommended especially for academic readers and specialists"--Library Journal

"[A]n intimate account of the individual and private sufferings of millions of Americans. Based on solid, comprehensive research, the volume is readable and vivid in language and example...[T]he author breathes life into stories of death...An impressive and important book for students, historians, and lay readers. Highly recommended."--CHOICE

"Now among the best of the post-Second World War publications on the great pandemic of the First World War."--Journal of the History of Medicine

"This readable and compelling account explains the role of race, gender and class, promotion of physical fitness and public education, and America's public health strategy during the influenza epidemics in 1918, 1919, 1920, and 1922. Bristow's work distinguishes itself with her emphasis on influenza epidemics beyond 1918-1919, the roles of physicians and nurses, the importance of public health nursing, and the personal revelation that she lost great-grandparents due to influenza."--Doody's Book Reviews

"[An] excellent social and cultural history of the outbreak...Bristow expertly delves into the tragedy and seeks to reconcile the 'public amnesia' of the nation with the private remembering of individuals and their families...The result is another fine addition to the recent scholarship of this important event in American history."--Journal of American History

"Building on Alfred Crosby's ground-breaking study, as well as an incredible amount of original research, this work on the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic offers a personal, professional, and official account of how Americans came to grips with la grippe, while also reflecting on how the nation's collective memory has been shaped by ignoring this tragedy. A rewarding read and highly recommended."--The Historian

"A prodigiously researched and often affecting history."--Journal of Social History

"Bristow interprets these often heartbreaking stories and the shocking statistics that accompany them with sensitivity but without sensationalism. The writing is fluid and compelling."--H-SHGAPE

"An intense and compelling overview of the impact that this pandemic had on Americans from every walk of life...Meticulously researched and eminently readable."--History in Review

"As historian Nancy K. Bristow shows in her compelling and readable new contribution to influenza scholarship, we still do not appreciate the epidemic's many legacies...Bristow's accomplishments are manifold. She segues readily between personal stories and collective experience. She develops complexity, contingency, and a multiplicity of contexts, and she does so with precision and grace. Her research is prodigious, and her writing is accessible,
jargon free, and economical. At just under two hundred pages of text, American Pandemic will appeal to undergraduates, who will love reading it, and to instructors, who will love teaching it. This fine book stands on its own as a tribute to the rich and tragic legacies that the 1918 pandemic left behind."--American Historical Review