New Resource! American Influenza Epidemic of 1918: A Digital Encyclopedia

by Julie Judkins

The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918: A Digital Encyclopedia (AIE) is an undertaking by the University of Michigan’s Center for the History of Medicine (CHM) in partnership with the University of Michigan Library’s MPublishing division, to create an open source, digital collection of archival, primary, and interpretive materials related to the history of the 1918 influenza pandemic in the United States. The materials in the AIE collection originated as research for two commissioned reports for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (2005) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2007). This virtual collection documents the experiences of diverse communities in the United States in fall 1918 and winter 1919 when influenza took the lives of approximately 675,000 Americans. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) awarded the project a prestigious “We the People” designation for its contribution to the teaching, study, and understanding of American history and culture.

The AIE collocates an estimated 50,000 pages of digitized reproductions of archival materials gathered by CHM staff at over 140 national institutions. It is intended for a wide-ranging audience that encompasses high school and college students, historians and social scientists, epidemiologists and public health practitioners, journalists and writers, as well as casual internet users interested in the period.

As the first digital collection to exhaustively document the impact of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic on one nation, the AIE is an unparalleled resource. It is the first digital encyclopedia to document the social, cultural, public health, and human dimensions of the most devastating infectious health crisis to occur during the post-germ theory era and it is the first to highlight the responses of over fifty American communities.

The AIE makes available for the first time a wealth of materials that have great appeal to scholars in the fields of American history, American studies, the history of medicine, women’s and gender studies, ethnic studies, African American studies, science and technology studies, and cultural and literary history. Scholars are able to explore how the 1918 influenza epidemic impacted many communities and sub-communities in the early twentieth-century United States and to understand on a fine-grained level how individuals and society responded to a health crisis of extraordinary magnitude. In addition, this digital encyclopedia is of great value to social scientists and public health practitioners seeking historical precedents of responses to infectious diseases. Historians or epidemiologists might use the AIE to see how successful different methods of containment proved to be and the resulting mortality rates of each city, as well as browse the primary sources for their own use. It is also possible that users might use the website for secondary and off-topic uses. For example, many of our newspaper clippings feature ads that might prove useful for someone studying advertising in the early twentieth century.

The AIE highlights the human and social experiences of disease, death, and dislocation associated with the pandemic. In addition to archival materials, the website offers an extensive set of interpretative documents that serve as templates for self-guided research projects. The largest set of interpretative documents are the fifty “city biographies” written by CHM’s research team. These essays explore the responses taken by fifty of the most populous cities during fall 1918 and winter 1919 as influenza ravaged their communities. They present the social and cultural context of each city and explore the issues that became significant as the epidemic unfolded over the fall and winter. Each essay is approximately 2,000 words and provides not only a portrait of the city during the epidemic—steps taken to prevent infection, spread of disease, death totals, introduction to major officials—but also the current state of the city at the time. Interactive timelines compliment the essays. Targeted lesson plans for several age groups, as well as other educational content, are currently being developed and should be added to the website within the next year.

We envision the AIE as both an introduction to the topic of the influenza epidemic in the United States, as well as a resource for further study. The city essays are a good example of this intention, since they collocate the primary sources gathered, as well as highlight sources of particular interest. Yet, although we believe the essays are a good entry point, especially for non-historians, users are also able to browse the database independently of the essays. All archival documents have undergone optical character recognition in order to provide full text searching.

Interpretive materials

Each of the fifty cities studied has an individual page devoted to content about that city. This page, where the city essays and timelines are featured, is accessed from the hyperlinked list on the right side of the homepage (“50 U.S. Cities & Their Stories”). Like most websites, our project is a work in progress and complete content is still forthcoming. Please check back if your hometown’s materials aren’t available at the present time.

Links and Further Information:

Julie Judkins works as a digital librarian at the University of Michigan’s Center for the History of Medicine. After hours, Julie leads a teen writing workshop at 826michigan. She is the 2013 ACRL-LES & ACRL-ARTS Emerging Leader. Visit her blog at

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