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Army Surgeon General William Crawford Gorgas: Memories of War


The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 to 1919 is a major catastrophe in the United States and the rest of the world. Coming at a time when the Great War has just ended, the nation is least prepared to deal with such a major disaster. According to Olberding (2019), it is one of the worst epidemics that the country has ever faced. In the United States alone, many lives have been lost than was ever the case in the war. As the disease progresses, it is apparent that the country needs leadership to help it overcome the confusion, fear, and desperation brought about by the pandemic. In this journal, I have outlined events during this period and how I, as the Army Surgeon General, play a major role in defining policies that were applied in managing the pandemic.

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May 1, 1918: The Outbreak

I have just moved to the Pentagon after a long service in different parts of the world in preparation for my retirement. I have played a major role in the fight against yellow fever and malaria both in the United States and Cuba. It has become apparent that a unique kind of flu is spreading quickly across the country, and our military personnel is the worst affected group. The global society is going through a period of relative calm after the Great War has just ended. Each nation is focusing on revamping its economy after about four years of battles. The United States has just assisted the Allies to win the war and its focus now is to promote socio-economic and political progress within the country. However, that is not to be as the pandemic strikes even before the government can pull all its troops back home. At this time, I am back at the United States military headquarters after successful military service in Havana, Panama Canal, and Florida (Gandy, Christopher, and Rodning 2017). I have helped save the lives of thousands of soldiers under my command when I brought up the concept of hygiene as the best way of fighting yellow fever and malaria. I believe that by controlling mosquitoes known to carry the two diseases, we can reduce the rate of infections. As such, when the pandemic strikes in early May 1918, the leadership of the nation has invited me to offer proper guidance on how to deal with the problem.

June 5- June 12, 1918: Early Response

It has become apparent that we have to find a way of managing the spread of the flu both within the barracks and among the general population. One of the main challenges my team and I face is the diversity of the national culture. Years of immigration have created a highly diversified culture in the United States. I have realized that the diversified culture makes it difficult to implement some policies that may significantly alter the way of life of the general population. There is a stable political leadership in the country with Thomas Woodrow Wilson as the president. His courage and commitment to our policies are pivotal in enhancing early success in the fight against the pandemic. The current events at this time mainly focus on socio-economic reconstruction after the devastating war (Brown 2018). The literature, music, and popular slang all focus on the victory of the country in a major way. For instance, I believe the song Freedom for All Forever by Joseph Phillips is currently popular because of its relevance. The country is united because almost everyone played a major role directly or indirectly to help bring victory to the nation.

July 1: My Place of Residence and How it Influenced Our Early Plans

I started my military career in 1880 and was posted in Fort Brown in Texas after passing out in 1882. I gained a unique interest in maintaining high levels of hygiene after surviving an episode of yellow fever. I was subsequently promoted to the position of Chief Sanitary Officer at a base in Havana (Gandy, Christopher, and Rodning 2017). I then moved to Florida on promotion, before being sent to Panama to supervise the construction of the canal. I served on various military bases around the world. Currently, when the nation is faced with a pandemic, I have just moved to the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia as I approach my retirement.

July 25- August 9: Problems the Society Faced, Obstacles We Had To Overcome and Policy We Proposed

During this period, our country faces two main problems. The first problem is the economic challenges that arise from the Great War. We have invested massive resources into military expansion, stopping most of the developmental projects. The second obstacle is this outbreak of the influenza pandemic. According to Krasner (2019), one of the factors that make this problem uniquely challenging is that most medical experts do not understand it. The disease is new, and the majority of medical experts are not aware of the best way through which it can be managed at this time. Medical solutions currently available have failed to manage the problem. It is evident that we have to find an alternative way of managing influenza. We have proposed that the best way of dealing with the disease is to limit physical contact, promote a healthy diet, and enhance hygiene among the general population.

August 10-September 30, 1918: Dilemmas I Faced in Implementing Containment Measures

The primary dilemma that I face, which I consider modern in scope, is whether to proceed to early leave as I wait for my retirement late this year or to remain in active service and help combat the disease until my retirement date. I opt to serve the country as an active general, and I help develop policies that will significantly reduce cases of mortality. My sacrifice can be compared with the current cases of doctors, nurses, and other medical officers who have suspended their retirement or have come out of retirement to help combat the current pandemic (Rutakirwa 2020). I know that the country needs my service at this time when everyone else feels scared and uncertain of the future. I have realized that it is more meaningful to stay in service and to work with other doctors, both in the military service and other civilian doctors, to help the nation overcome the pandemic.

Another major dilemma that I face is the decision to use principles I had applied in the military to help combat the national disaster. I emphasize the need for people to maintain a healthy diet, have clean water, clean air, and avoid crowding (Gandy, Christopher, and Rodning 2017). It is easy to apply these principles in the military where soldiers have to follow commands given by their superiors. However, it is not guaranteed that civilians will also observe such containment measures. It is also not confirmed that fresh air, clean water, and a healthy diet can help combat the problem. However, that is not stopping me from proposing these measures.

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I can relate this approach to some of the modern approaches that medical experts are using to combat another emerging virus. Various medicines have been proposed, but others have been proven to have no benefit in fighting the disease. Another common practice today of maintaining the physical distance (enforced through curfews and lockdowns) reflects measures that I have proposed. It is important to note that certain universal problems exist not connected with time or location. The problem of influenza is universal and it also affected people outside the United States. The socio-economic effects of the Great War are also affecting people all over the world.


The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 to 1919 came at a time when the United States was planning its economic recovery after it emerged victorious in the First World War. The medical society was not aware of this disease or how it should be managed, just like what is happening today with the COVID-19 pandemic. In both cases, the problem gripped the global society, infecting millions and killing hundreds of thousands. Scientific research has revealed that both influenza and coronavirus are respiratory communicable diseases. They both require healthy people to maintain physical distance from those with the virus to avoid infection. During the period of the Great Influenza Pandemic, General William Crawford Gorgas emerged as a hero by developing policy regulations that could help manage the problem. Currently, many health experts have put their lives in danger to help combat the disease and save lives in the country. It is through such selflessness of individual citizens that this nation continues to prosper.


Brown, Jeremy. 2018. Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Gandy, Roy, Raven M. Christopher, and Charles B. Rodning. 2017. “The Statesmanship of William Crawford Gorgas, M.D., Surgeon General, Medical Corps, United States Army.” The American Journal of Surgery83 (3): 221-232.

Krasner, Barbara. 2019. Influenza: How the Flu Changed History. North Mankato: Capstone Press.

Olberding, Janelle. 2019. Butte and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. Charleston: The History Press.

Rutakirwa, Tonny. 2020. Understanding Corona Virus (COVID-19). New York: Lulu Com.

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