Sift. Shift. Lift.

What can we learn from the Spanish flu?

February 2021

Hello friends,

The 1918 Influenza (aka Spanish flu) pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide. Yet, it is not widely taught in schools and was largely ignored by popular culture until the Covid-19 pandemic, when bloggers, podcasters, journalists and others began to look to the past to learn how we could respond to the virus—and how it might change us. When I set out to write about this topic, I quickly realized that I could not write about the 1918 influenza virus in isolation.

So, in this issue, we will sift through research about zoonotic diseases, not just the 1918 influenza virus. We will then shift our attention to art, music and literature created during the 1918 pandemic and its aftermath to better understand the personal toll the virus took on individuals. We will then lift up researchers and organizations with one of two distinct objectives: to document and preserve our day-to-day experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic or to mitigate the risk of future pandemics caused by zoonotic diseases.

Ready? Pour yourself a cup of whatever-you-fancy and settle in.

1918 Influenza

If you have more than an hour to spare, I highly recommend listening to this episode of Radiolab, which not only situates the 1918 Influenza within the political and cultural context of the day but also shows how “the invisible hand of that flu has continued to guide and shape us for the last 100 years and has left the world a very different place.”

Hear how the 1918 Influenza pandemic may have influenced the Treaty of Versailles, Ghandi’s philosophy of non-violent protest, modern art and spiritualism. And then find out what happened to the 1918 virus. (Hint: it didn’t disappear when the pandemic ended.)

Don’t have much time? Watch this video from the University of Cambridge.

Zoonoses, virus hunters and the 1918 influenza virus

Did you know that 60 per cent of the diseases that affect humans originated with animals? Disease ecologists, virologists and other researchers eagerly track and study viruses in animals in hopes that they can not only predict which ones will cross the species barrier but also find ways to prevent future outbreaks. Want to read more? Start here:


Visual Art

As discussed in “Dispatches from 1918”, the 1918 Influenza cut short the lives of artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Other artists like Edvard Munch and John Singer Sargent contracted the disease but lived.

See how Schiele, Munch and Singer Sargent portrayed the pandemic in their work.


Writers in the early 20th century wrote a lot about World War I. It is harder to find novels and poems that cover the 1918 pandemic, although they do exist. Some of them are well-regarded classics like Katherine Anne Porter’s novel Pale Horse, Pale Rider and W.B. Yeats’s poem The Second Coming. (One could even consider the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft to be inspired by the pandemic.)

Elizabeth Outka, Professor of Literature at the University of Richmond explores these connections and more in her timely 2019 release:

Not ready to commit to her 344-page treatise? Check out her related essay in The Paris Review:

In Japan, poet Yosana Akiko wrote eloquently about the pandemic, publishing “Kanbō no toko kara” (From an Influenza Sickbed) in November 1918, and “Oriori no kansō” (Thoughts and Impressions) in February 2019. While these two essays addressed pragmatic, medical issues, a third essay—“Shi no kyōfu” (The Fear of Death)—published in January 1920 considered the pandemic’s psychological impact. A theme she would return to three years later in “Shi no kyōi” (The Dread of Death).


No one knew about viruses in 1918. The influenza pandemic was frequently referred to as an act of God, a punishment for those who had strayed from righteousness. This can be seen (or, more accurately, heard) in the following Blues tunes.

The virus was also the subject of Yiddish plague songs, as this article in Tablet explains.

Last but not least, the 1918 influenza pandemic influenced or inspired classical composers like Prokofiev and Stravinsky.


Are you keeping a Covid diary?

  • Find out how you could share it with future historians through the Telling Our Stories project led by Dr. Janis Whitlock, a researcher at Cornell University.

Do you want to take action to prevent future pandemics caused by zoonotic diseases?