Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Patricia J. Fanning's "Influenza and Inequality"

Patricia J. Fanning is professor and chairperson of the Department of Sociology at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Massachusetts and the author of Through an Uncommon Lens: The Life and Photography of F. Holland Day.

She applied “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Influenza and Inequality: One Town’s Tragic Response to the Great Epidemic of 1918, and reported the following:
The US populations most seriously affected by the influenza epidemic of 1918 were young adult, lower class, and foreign born. My book, Influenza and Inequality, is the only account of a local response (Norwood, Massachusetts) to that outbreak and thus gets to the heart of the experience. When the epidemic struck and its primary victims were identified as immigrants, the official response was quick and sharp. An Emergency Hospital was opened; theaters, churches, and soda fountains were closed. More telling, newspapers and reports suggested that unsanitary living conditions, deficient personal hygiene, and a lack of assimilation were the causes of the spread of influenza and the victims were blamed for their plight. Authorities searched only immigrant neighborhoods and transported the sick, often against their will, to the Emergency Hospital where they received minimal attention due to overcrowding. Uninformed and failing to comprehend the crisis, immigrants became fearful and resistant. On Page 99 we learn about the results of these actions: over half the town’s deaths occurred among the Lithuanian, Polish, and Italian immigrant populations. On the facing page, there is a map of the town which includes the locations of influenza victims’ residences, significantly clustered in the segregated ethnic enclaves.

To bring the story to life, I utilized primary sources including official reports and minutes, newspaper accounts, death and cemetery records, diaries and memoirs. I also collected family stories to piece together the lives of those left behind. Page 99 includes a few of these accounts:
For those who had lost loved ones in the epidemic, life would never be the same. Emma Maki's seven children were taken in by relatives and friends. Anna Cvilikas's sons grew to adulthood believing their stepmother was their mother. Other children were raised by grandparents, relatives, and friends. Mary Drummey, the child whose mother had died at Norwood Hospital after giving birth, recalled that, although her father visited her often, she never lived with him; instead, her grandmother raised her. These and other families set about the task of trying to survive. As one Lithuanian-American woman recalled, “The old timers would get together at our house and talk quite a bit about the old country, coming here and the early times. There were hard, difficult times both in Lithuania and here. The flu was always spoken of as one of the hardships, just one more hardship that had to be faced.”
I hope that my book’s close examination 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 about community, disease, and our options for judging individual lives as either dispensable or of consequence.
Read more about Influenza and Inequality at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue