Unable to cure their patients or to check the epidemic, many physicians experienced an unfamiliar, and unexpected, sense of helplessness. One physician suggested that after 400 years of the disease one might expect that “the medical profession would be unfailing in its [influenza’s] recognition and somewhat proficient in its control,” but suggested that “the records of our army camps and our bureaus of vital statistics too plainly establish the futility of our efforts at control.” Another practitioner concluded, “There was just nothing you could do.”
For many this sense of powerlessness was completely unanticipated. Certain about the utility of germ theory, confident in their scientific methods, and proud of recent successes with infectious diseases, many doctors had embraced a belief in their ability to handle any health crisis. Their failure to control the epidemic or help their patients came as a terrible surprise and a blow to their professional identity.
“The happy memories of the epidemic are many,” wrote Eunice H. Dyke. “The list of treasured experiences,” she concluded, “is long.” Or as Miss Condell, a nursing student in Boston, remembered, “We enjoyed the work and as it was considered a war measure to nurse the civilian population we were very glad we were nurses and able to do ‘our bit.’” In short, she concluded, “The nursing experience was wonderful and we have learned many valuable lessons. The self control, the endurance, and the splendid willing spirit of all the nurses were marvelous.”
Though few were as effusive as Dyke and Condell, nurses’ memories of the epidemic, at least those they recorded, were rarely as wholeheartedly negative as those of physicians. While most shared the doctors’ sadness, and even revulsion, at the suffering and dying they witnessed, this dismay was often coupled with more positive associations with this period in their lives. “All of us who had any part in helping in the epidemic,” a report on visiting nurses in Boston explained, “must look back upon it as one of the most immediately satisfactory experiences of our lives, and this is true even though we were borne down with the knowledge that, do all we might, the pressing, tragic need for nursing was much greater than could possibly be met.” Or as another account maintained, “Terrible as was the influenza epidemic, with its frightful toll, there was a certain tremendous exhilaration to be felt as well as many lessons to be learned from such a terrific test.”
Bristow, Nancy K. American Pandemic : The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic. Oxford University Press, 2012