‘A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing’: Challenges to Californian Medical Authority during the 1918-18 Influenza Pandemic

Activity: Talk or presentation typesPresentation


The 1918-19 influenza pandemic challenged medical authority on a global scale. Doctors imbued with confidence from late-19th century germ theory successes faced a pandemic of disputed aetiology and origin, all the while watching as treatments proved ineffective and people died in their thousands. Debates over the cause and treatment of flu dominated national medical journal discussions, however in California – where almost 30,000 people died of flu between October 1918 – March 1920 – concerns over the influenza pandemic were secondary to a doctor-led crusade for medical authority dating back to California’s 1850 admission to the Union. Much to the chagrin of California’s Board of Medical Examiners, those they saw as quacks and charlatans – including non-Western practitioners, Christian Scientists, and chiropractors – not only regularly challenged the authority of the state’s doctors but were often also better received – due to a hostile press - by a civilian public whose recalcitrance towards the medical establishment had been compounded by experiences of plague in 1905. This paper explores the State Medical Society’s attempts to retain and bolster medical authority by controlling the definition, contents, and character of medical knowledge in California. By studying who was granted authority, both officially by the state and unofficially by its residents’ choices of care providers during the 1918-19 pandemic, the paper will also show how existing religious and racial tensions in the region, as well as California’s unique attitudes towards health, dictated the challenges the medical establishment had to overcome to secure their profession’s future in the state.
Period6 Oct 2023
Event titleAuthority and Expertise in Histories of Science, Medicine, and Technology 1650-1950: A Postgraduate Conference exploring the participation and evaluation of scientific knowledge during the modern period
Event typeConference
LocationSt Andrews, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionLocal