“Child’s Play?”: The Role of Children in the 1918 Influenza Epidemic in New Zealand

Kathleen Jane Lange, Dickinson College


Killing over 50 million people worldwide in the aftermath of World War I, the 1918 influenza epidemic followed soldiers home to all corners of the globe. In New Zealand, almost 8,600 people died, approximately half the number lost during the War. Since their parents, older family members, and neighbors were abed, children played a vital part in the relief efforts by taking on adult responsibilities like caring for the sick, and preparing and delivering food to invalids. The influenza created a temporary situation in which the roles of children and adults were reversed. The parts these children played in combatting the epidemic demonstrated family dynamics, complicated gender norms, and revealed the emergence of New Zealand’s national identity. Through their participation in the relief efforts, whether in an institutional or individual context, children’s ability to take on roles and responsibilities that by the turn of the 20th century were no longer their own lessened the impact of the influenza in New Zealand.