‘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 the Los Angeles County Medical Association (LACMA)- the foremost medical authority in Southern California by 1918 - those they saw as quacks and charlatans (including non-Western practitioners, Christian Scientists, and chiropractors) not only regularly challenged the authority and practices of the state’s doctors but were often more favourably received by LA residents wary of epidemic prevention measures. This paper explores LACMA’s attempts to retain and bolster medical authority by controlling the definition, contents, and character of medical knowledge in California both prior to and during the 1918-19 pandemic. In showing who was granted authority, both officially by the Association and unofficially by citizens’ choice of care providers during the pandemic, this paper will discuss how resistance, both to medical authority by citizens and to its changing character by doctors, challenged the classification of medicine in the region and the success of pandemic prevention measures in 1918.
Period16 Jul 202419 Jul 2024
Event titleSociety for the Social History of Medicine Biennial Conference
'Resistance': Organized by the CSHHH Glasgow at the University of Strathclyde
Event typeConference
LocationGlasgow, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionNational