The Great Influenza Characters

The main characters in The Great Influenza are William Henry Welch, Simon Flexner, William Gorgas, Woodrow Wilson, Oswald Avery, William Park, and Anna Williams.

  • William Henry Welch was an influential American medical researcher and educator known for connecting the scientific community together.
  • Simon Flexner was the director of the Rockefeller Institute.
  • William Gorgas was the US Army Surgeon General; in that role, he helped prepare the military for the pandemic.
  • Woodrow Wilson was the active president during the influenza pandemic.
  • Oswald Avery was a Rockefeller Institute researcher who made a pivotal discovery about DNA.
  • William Park and Anna Williams were central influenza researchers who ran a laboratory in New York.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on August 13, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1193

William Henry Welch

William Welch was “arguably the single most influential scientist in the world” during the time of the influenza pandemic. Welch began his career in medical science at a time when American medicine lagged significantly behind European medicine. While studying in Germany, Welch recognized the “means by which German science had achieved such stature.” His goal was to bring these elements to the United States, ultimately revolutionizing American medicine. He succeeded. By World War I, American medicine was leading the rest of the world.

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Great Influenza Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Welch himself did not achieve any important discoveries in the laboratory. However, he was “an extraordinarily useful conduit” in that he was able to connect scientists from across his network, allowing ideas to flow and important research to take form. His legacy “lay in his ability to stir other men’s souls.” As an educator and as a leader, Welch had enormous impact and lived “a revolutionary life.”

Simon Flexner

Simon Flexner was an important member of the first generation of modern American medical scientists. He was a protégé of William Welch and “a brilliant scientist in his own right.” In 1901, Flexner became the first director of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. In the progression of American medicine, the Institute “would change everything.” In 1910, Flexner’s own research significantly reduced the mortality rate for the most common bacterial meningitis.

Flexner retained “a roughness” his entire life. Colleagues spoke of his “steely precision” and “a logic… final as a knife.” As a leader, Flexner had “a large vision” and “welcomed openness,” though he could be ruthless. Even in his relationship with Paul Lewis, who referred to him as a father figure, Flexner was blunt when needed. During the pandemic, Flexner directed the work of many scientists to the study of influenza.

Rufus Cole 

Rufus Cole was the first director of the Rockefeller Institute Hospital. Contrary to what his superiors originally envisioned, Cole insisted that patients in the hospital be cared for by the same physicians conducting research on them. His persistence ultimately prevailed, creating “the model of clinical research.”

William Gorgas 

During World War I, William Gorgas served as Surgeon General of the Army. In that role, he was in charge of American military medicine as a whole. By 1918, Gorgas had “developed an international reputation.”

From the beginning of the war, Gorgas had a “nightmare” of a possible pandemic. This nightmare propelled him to prepare the army against infectious disease as much as possible, focusing on his goal that World War I “would be the first war in which fewer American soldiers died of disease than from combat.”

Although his military superiors often ignored or actively opposed his advice, Gorgas was able to accomplish a great deal in his role, mitigating much potential damage in the process.

Woodrow Wilson 

President Woodrow Wilson was leader of the United States during the...

(The entire section contains 1193 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this The Great Influenza study guide. You'll get access to all of the The Great Influenza content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Summary
  • Chapter Summaries
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Analysis
  • Quotes
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial