Around the time of the pandemic, there were a number of remarkable people who had helped bring medical practices and research to the cutting edge. There are some areas of study where, even a century later, medical practitioners remain indebted to these forebears’ expertise and the skills they developed in a time of influenza. Paul Lewis was one of those geniuses. Another was William Henry Welch, who founded the first academic program devoted to public health in 1916 at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Still, it took tremendous time and dedication to make medicine a modern, scientific pursuit. Until the late-1800s, the field of medicine had changed very little since the days of Hippocrates in ancient Greece. Even until 1900, only one medical school in five required a high school diploma in the United States, and only one medical school required a college degree for admission. Many applicants without any serious training in the physical sciences were admitted, simply by proving that they could pay tuition. Degrees were doled out to men (women were not admitted) simply for passing all the classes—even if they had never touched a body or seen a patient.
Eventually, medical practice began to improve and become more empirically verified, first in Europe and then in the United States. United States medical science was the worst in the developed world before it became the best.
William Henry Welch was a forerunner who helped bring the massive and much-needed changes to the United States’ medical education. Welch was a capable scientist, physician, and professor, but his strength lay in his ability to inspire. He was a charming and charismatic individual. The students he taught at Johns Hopkins adored him and would become the most coveted in the United States. These Welch protégés formed an army of elites who would become more desperately needed than they knew in 1918. Welch was a man who convinced people that improvements in the American medical field were horribly overdue, and he provided a road map for how to get there, as well as a prestigious group of medical professionals to navigate it.
Welch’s influence revolutionized medicine in the United States, but another thing that made Welch singular was that he saw what most everyone else had missed: humanity’s vulnerability to epidemics. He had noticed the trend that every time the United States went to war, disease killed far more combatants than the opposing armies. Moreover, war had a way of spreading illness. These facts led Welch to predict that, with the Great War on, it was just a matter of time before some kind of epidemic broke out.
Welch had pushed Johns Hopkins for a public health program since the 1880s, and he finally got his wish in 1916 when the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health was founded. This was just two years before the influenza began to emerge. He saw that robust public health (of which epidemiology, or the study of disease, is a central feature) was the best way to save lives. He was right, and his intuition holds true to this day.