Spokane and the Nation: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919

Lesson One

(Days 1-2)

“A Mysterious Disease – The Great Epidemic of the East”

Overview: The first hints of the Influenza epidemic reached Spokane, Washington, in September 1918 with reports in newspapers telling of a mysterious inflection striking army bases and other sites along the Atlantic seaboard. For the unit it is important to spark the interest of the students and to encourage them to develop an empathetic connection with the people who lived during the 1918 influenza epidemic. By using newspaper materials from the era, we will begin to track the epidemic from the standpoint of a person living in Spokane. Stepping into the shoes of a Spokane resident and viewing the situation from their perspective, as they get the news, will help to build suspense and form a connection with the events as well as encourage student interest in primary source materials.

Goals: During this lesson, students will:

Teacher Preparation : (1) Read through the lesson plan below. We recommend two days for this lesson, including a homework assignment. (2) Review and make copies of the three articles and one study guide, listed below, to hand out to your students in order to facilitate in-class reading and discussion. (3) If you would like to learn more in advance about the epidemic, read suggested background articles. (Note our bibliography consists of an annotated list of books and articles on the epidemic, available for you or for students who want to go deeper into this topic.)

Teaching Strategies and Learning Activities

Day One: Preliminary Lecture Prompt -- The Influenza Epidemic: Tell your students that the class will be studying a great, mysterious plague that ravaged the United States in 1918-19, at the end of World War I. They will be watching the plague unfold, week by week, just as Spokanites did at that time -- not knowing whether it would break out of its mainly eastern confines and move across the country or be contained before reaching Spokane. They will be looking at how people reacted to the epidemic, and evaluating their successes and failures at curtailing it.

Day One: Lecture-Discussion Prompt -- Disease and History: Encourage students think about the nature of infectious diseases and also about this period in American history:

  1. Ask them, how do we get sick? They will probably mention a kid brother or sister coming home with a flu or a cold from day care, or tell the class about sitting next to a person in a theater who coughed on them and made them sick. This would be a good time to introduce this Key Concept: All diseases have “reservoirs.” This is the name medical experts give to the places where germs live when they are not affecting us. For example, a reservoir can be an insect (West Nile Disease) and it can be another person (cold, flu). In the cases of colds, flus, and many other diseases, the germs come from the “reservoir” of another person, afflicted with the disease, to us-- by coughing or sneezing, for example. You should also mention these Key Concepts: Diseases that are passed from one person to another are called “infectious diseasesand diseases that thrive especially well in close quarters are called “crowd diseases.”
  2. Ask the students what events in American history at this time might have encouraged the spread of crowd diseases. Depending on whether they have studied World War I, they will likely tell you or you will tell them, about the war. Ask: Why did the fact that we were at war make a difference? How would that encourage the spread of an infectious disease. Answers: Crowded military camps, crowded troop ships to and from Europe, and crowded battle trenches in Europe. (In the articles for today's research and discussion they will see some of these places in the East as hotbeds of influenza in the early weeks of the outbreak. The articles also mention an isolated outbreak in Fort Lewis, near Tacoma, Washington.)

Student Research and Discussion -- Early Newspaper Reports of the Epidemic: After the preliminary lecture-discussion the student should now read three articles from local papers indicating how Spokanites first got the news of the Influenza epidemic. Provide them with copies of the articles and copies of a question sheet to lead them into the articles. Depending on your choice, students can read the articles and answer the questions either individually or in groups. Distribute these three articles, available in the project archive:

Distribute the question sheet for lesson one. It will help your class understand the character of the Influenza outbreak in its early stages, including whom was affected and how society reacted.

Suggested Schedule for Days One and Two :

Additional Background Reading: