Intro to Public History Week Three: Spanish Influenza and Today

On the bookshelf:
John M. Barry, The Great Influenza

It is 1918. A group of soldiers tightly gather around a stove in their barracks in the freezing cold, unaware of the deadly virus they are exposing themselves to. An otherwise healthy, young man feels feverish and is dead twelve hours later, his lungs filled with blood. A public health official downplays the risk of infection in large crowds and allows a major parade to proceed, in order to raise war funds from a population that will soon be decimated on the homefront. A woman with some nursing experience volunteers to help the suffering but doesn’t return after one hospital shift. A family is forced to bury their own relative sans coffin. A row of houses, black crepe paper hung above each door.

John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza is full of these striking, evocative images, and that is where it shines. These snapshots are strung together to form a dramatic and gruesome narrative of helplessness and hope, heroes and villains, that forms a relevant commentary on how populations and the medical community might respond to modern pandemics.

couldnt_fight-t
Claude Forsyth, “And They Thought We Couldn’t Fight,” 1918. Image courtesy of U.S. Army Center of Military History

Unfortunately, that is also one of its weaknesses. In order to tell such a theatrical story of valiant deeds, Barry gets caught up in identifying and relaying the biographies of the people he considers the true heroes of the story, the (primarily male) doctors who planned “a revolution that transformed American medicine from the most backward in the developed world into the best in the world” (6). For Barry, this is a story of American greatness and triumph against the odds.

But the story isn’t that simple. American medicine didn’t suddenly become a highly respected and trustworthy institution in the course of a few years, or as a result of a few good men. The gradual trend toward more responsible public health practices correlates to a greater concern for issues of public welfare symptomatic of the era.

And civilians didn’t just lay prostrate waiting for death to take them. The public response to the crisis requires a level of nuance that largely wasn’t there in Barry’s narrative. Factors like urban poverty and even the response to the war are generally overshadowed. As evident from some of the primary source research I’ve conducted for this class, civic groups and charities took action in their communities just as they had for countless other public welfare issues in the era, including food purity, sanitation, and workers’ rights. If not many women showed up for volunteer shifts at hospitals, perhaps it was because they were tasked with caring for their own sick family members at home, providing childcare, or working long hours to put food on the table- likely all three.

I have a number of thoughts as to what the takeaways from this topic and this book could be for the purposes of public history. Certainly the message that responsible government and media coverage of an epidemic is vital in controlling both panic and the actual spread of disease is relevant to modern issues such as the Zika and West Nile viruses. Accordingly, I think any public historical discussion of the epidemic should avoid an emphasis on melodrama at the expense of clear information.

I wasn’t able to find any current examples of exhibits or other public programming currently being developed for this topic. I did, however, find that the National Endowment for the Humanities has funded several research projects about the 1918 flu epidemic, including a digital Influenza Encyclopedia, a data mining project, and a social history monograph entitled American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic. There is funding precedence for projects about this topic, and these data resources can be used to more fully inform any scholarship and/or programming that could come out of this class project.

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