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Influenza and Inequality

One Town's Tragic Response to the Great Epidemic of 1918

Patricia J. Fanning

Publication Year: 2010

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 well-intentioned 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.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvi

Epidemics have always been a fact of life. For centuries human beings have documented the ravages, both physical and psychological, of sweeping, deadly disease. But an epidemic is not merely a medical occurrence, nor does epidemic behavior begin ...

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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 ...

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Chapter One: Influenza Strikes

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pp. 13-25

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 ...

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Chapter Two: The Stratification of a New England Town

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pp. 26-38

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. ...

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Chapter Three: Reforms and Restrictions

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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 ...

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Chapter Four: The View from across the Tracks

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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. ...

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Chapter Five: The Epidemic Peaks

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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 ...

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Chapter Six: The Epidemic Experience

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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. ...

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Chapter Seven: The January Wave

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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. ...

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Chapter Eight: The Political Backlash and the Palmer Raids

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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 ...

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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 ...

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pp. 126-129

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 ...

Appendix 1: October Deaths

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pp. 131-134

Appendix 2: January Deaths

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pp. 135-136


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pp. 137-162


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pp. 163-167

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760222
E-ISBN-10: 1613760221
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558498112
Print-ISBN-10: 1558498117

Page Count: 184
Illustrations: 28 illus.
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Immigrants -- Health and hygiene -- Massachusetts -- Norwood -- History.
  • Discrimination -- Massachusetts -- Norwood -- History.
  • Influenza Epidemic, 1918-1919 -- Massachusetts -- Norwood -- History.
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