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Public Health Rep. 2010 Apr;125 Suppl 3:48-62.

"Destroyer and teacher": Managing the masses during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic.

Author information

  • Department of History, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY 11794-4348, USA. nancy.tomes@stonybrook.edu


The Spanish influenza arrived in the United States at a time when new forms of mass transportation, mass media, mass consumption, and mass warfare had vastly expanded the public places in which communicable diseases could spread. Faced with a deadly "crowd" disease, public health authorities tried to implement social-distancing measures at an unprecedented level of intensity. Recent historical work suggests that the early and sustained imposition of gathering bans, school closures, and other social-distancing measures significantly reduced mortality rates during the 1918-1919 epidemics. This finding makes it all the more important to understand the sources of resistance to such measures, especially since social-distancing measures remain a vital tool in managing the current H1N1 influenza pandemic. To that end, this historical analysis revisits the public health lessons learned during the 1918-1919 pandemic and reflects on their relevance for the present.

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