Lost to "Hopeful Amnesia": Reassessing the 1918 influenza epidemic

31 January 2022

History | Politics

The coronavirus pandemic has triggered renewed popular and academic interest in, and research about, the 1918 influenza epidemic. Particularly for those of us who were taught about the First World War from a primarily British perspective, the scale of civilian and military losses across Europe has often eclipsed popular European memory of the devastation wrought by the ‚Äėflu. This devastation was felt particularly keenly in the United States; a country that did not officially join the war until April 1917, and which saw six times as many die during the epidemic than were lost in battle.

The crisis came towards the end of what is known as the Gilded Age and Progressive Era; a period of significant social, economic and political change for the United States. Professor Christopher McKnight Nichols, a member of the editorial board for the recently published resource The Gilded Age and Progressive Era, explores the development of the epidemic in the context of an increasingly interconnected world, evolving medical knowledge, usage of censorship and propaganda, and intervention of ‚Äúbig government‚ÄĚ in the lives of ordinary people. Professor Nichols also introduces ways in which the epidemic‚Äôs impact and contemporary relevance can and should be reassessed. 

As Professor Nichols explains, the 1918 virus disproportionately struck down young, healthy people ‚Äď not only was this devastating for families, leaving thousands of orphans in need of support, but it also affected much of the primary workforce (whether temporarily or permanently). Evidence of the impact of the epidemic on both employer and employee can be traced through railroad papers in The Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Throughout the railroad industry, companies were faced with labour shortages, to which they applied short-term, and often unpopular, fixes. These included transferring highly skilled staff to lower paid, more menial roles. Workers could be employed in positions that they were not trained to fulfil. In other cases, the number of train crews were reduced, leaving those remaining to work longer hours. These actions resulted in numerous complaints raised through labour unions, with the aim of securing financial compensation or even a change to company policy. Many of these issues have resurfaced over the last couple of years, highlighting the significance of understanding the past in order to better inform decisions about the future.

The Gilded Age and Progressive Era is available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Sophie Heath

Sophie Heath

Since joining the team in March 2013 I have worked on a number of exciting products, from the First World War to America in World War Two, Church Missionary Society Periodicals, Food and Drink in History and Race Relations in America - all very different but fascinating! My academic background is in foreign languages, in particular French and Italian, and I really enjoy putting this to good use when working with the foreign language material in our products.