Masters Thesis

"Plague in the boomtowns: the Spanish influenza in Bakersfield, and Kern County, 1918-1920"

Late in the summer of 1918, Bakersfield and Kern County was consumed by news of the war in Europe. Many hoped they were nearing the end of the deadliest war in history. But as one tragedy was ending another was just beginning. Today, ninety years after the Spanish Influenza epidemic swept the world, few are aware of the devastation it wrought. In fact, a sort of social amnesia enveloped much of the western world. Bakersfield was no exception. A present day resident of Kern County would not put the 1918 influenza on any list of local disasters. Though when the facts are examined, the Spanish Influenza mortality rate in Bakersfield exceeded every other major city in California. But even Bakersfield’s numbers were dwarfed by two regions of rural Kern County. The rapidly growing towns on the West Side and Oildale, just north of Bakersfield, were bustling, youthful, oil boomtowns. In little more than a decade these non-existent towns grew to contain a third of the county’s population. Sadly, the youth of the boomtowns made the Spanish Influenza even more devastating to these rural communities. In only four months of flu, these towns would loss many times more victims from plague than two years of war. How could such an event not be remembered, memorialized, and indelibly imprinted in our social consciousness? Yet, the influenza of 1918 proved to be much more than a forgotten tragedy in our collective past. It was a physical loss felt by nearly every family in the region. Globally, the effects of four years of war followed by a pandemic that took millions more lives, left twentieth-century society reeling. Kern County dealt with the great loss like the rest of the world; it tried to forget it.

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