Book collaboration explores impact 1918 flu pandemic had on Milford and
By Bill Doyle / Telegram & Gazette Staff
Posted at 8:09 AM Updated at 10:18 AM
WORCESTER – Just as Linda Hixon and Shawn Driscoll were finishing their book, “The Grip: The
1918 Pandemic and a City Under Siege,” last winter, another pandemic hit.
They believe that after more than 100 years have passed, the United States should have learned
more about how to protect itself from COVID-19.
“I’d have to say we’ve learned nothing from the 1918 pandemic,” Hixon said. “We should have and
we can, but we didn’t.”
Driscoll said the 1918 flu pandemic should have taught everyone that local, state and federal
governments need to work together to implement safety measures, and decide when to shut down
and reopen businesses and schools. But somehow it didn’t.
“I don’t think we’re truly taking the lessons that need to be learned from 1918-19 and applying them
to the 21st century,” he said.
Hixon, 59, of Worcester, is a former adjunct professor of U.S. history at Worcester State University.
Driscoll, 46, of Worcester, received his master’s degree in history in 2017 from WSU, and he’s a
third-year doctoral research fellow at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
The book — co-authored by Christian Farren and Theodore Racicot, and written last year with help
from Worcester high school students, local historians and other academics — explores the 1918
pandemic’s impact on the city.
Editing finished last February, just as the current pandemic hit the U.S. full bore. The book was
printed about a month ago.
Hitting hard in Milford
Hixon, a Hopedale native, wrote a chapter on Milford, where the death rate was higher than
Worcester. Milford’s Italian immigrants living on the less affluent side of town, particularly their
children, were hit especially hard.
“It’s stunning how many, first of all, children, were on it, (and) second ... how many Italians were on
it,” Hixon said, of the list of the virus’ dead.
Hixon said many of the immigrants couldn’t speak English, so they weren’t properly warned how to
protect themselves from the pandemic. The Italians gathered at the funerals of their dead and the
pandemic spread rapidly through their neighborhoods, wiping out whole families.
Hixon’s research found 154 people who died of the flu between September 1918 and May 1919 in
Milford, concentrated in the Plains and Prospect Heights neighborhoods. Milford only had a
population of around 14,000 at the time.
“That’s a lot of people to die of one thing,” Hixon said.
When people stopped wearing masks in 1919, she said, there was a resurgence among the
Portuguese and the Armenian communities, she said.
Hixon’s chapter included Hopedale, she said, but focused on Milford in part because she had family
there at the time. Her uncle was born shortly before the pandemic flooded the area, she said, which
was lucky, because a lot of women miscarried while sick.