WSU historian and pandemic expert returns to campus

Historian, author, and expert on the 1918 influenza pandemic Alfred W. Crosby, a former WSU faculty member, returns to campus after more than a 30-year hiatus to present a lecture on that deadly flu, the topic of the university’s first common reading book for freshmen.

Crosby’s public presentation is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16, in room 203 of the Smith Center for Undergraduate Education (CUE). The event is free and open to the public.

Crosby is an acclaimed researcher on the 1918 pandemic, also known as the “Spanish Flu,” that killed more than 50 million people worldwide. He is frequently cited in the common reading book, “Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It.”

Its author, Gina Kolata, interviewed Crosby for the book. A New York Times science writer who has been nominated for a Pulitzer-Prize, Kolata will also be on the Pullman campus Nov. 6 for a 7 p.m. public lecture in Beasley Performing Arts Coliseum.

“We are very pleased that Dr. Crosby is returning to our campus to discuss his work with our students, faculty, staff, and the community” said Mary F. Wack, vice provost for undergraduate education.

“More than 3,000 freshmen and their professors received the Kolata book and are using it in dozens of classes this fall.  The subject of the flu is very timely because of the recent global interest in the 1918 flu as a way to better understand contemporary cases of the avian flu.

“Welcoming Dr. Crosby, and soon Ms. Kolata, to WSU will provide opportunities for everyone to hear firsthand from these national experts.”

It is reported that Crosby’s interest in the 1918 flu was piqued while he was looking through almanacs while at WSU. He noticed that life expectancies in 1917 and 1919 were considerably higher than in 1918. He investigated “why,” and his findings led to his research on the subject of the international 1918 flu pandemic.

He has authored numerous articles and nine books. “Epidemic and Peace, 1918” was reissued as “America’s Forgotten Pandemic: the Influenza of 1918.” It received the Medical Writers’ Association Award for the Best Book on a Medical Subject for Laymen in 1976.

Crosby regards himself as an “environmental historian.” His best known book is “The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492.”  His career as an educator spanned four decades. He taught at Albion College, The Ohio State University, and San Fernando Valley State College before arriving at WSU in 1966. After leaving WSU, he taught at the University of Texas at Austin, and retired in 1999.

Crosby has held numerous fellowships and special appointments, including a Fulbright at the Alexander Turnbull Library in New Zealand, a National Humanities Institute Fellowship at Yale University, and a membership on the Council of Scholars for the Library of Congress.

His bachelor’s and master’s degrees are from Harvard University, and his Ph.D. from Boston University.

The common reading book was chosen by a committee of faculty and staff from across the Pullman campus. The selection criteria were a non-fiction book, capable of use across disciplines and engaging student interest, with a global and diverse theme, and of manageable size. Faculty members are using the book in courses ranging from economics to sciences to world civilizations. The WSU Libraries has compiled numerous references on the epidemic, including local stories of its impact. And Residence Life staff members are incorporating discussion on “Flu” and the subjects it raises in residence halls where many freshmen live.

For more information on Crosby and Kolata’s visits, and the common reading program, visit the Web site at

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