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.
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.
“Spanish Flu: A Warning from History.” (November 2018)
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:
“Influenza’s Wild Origins in the Animals Around Us?” by Jonathan Runstadler, Professor of Infectious Disease and Global Health, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University (March 9, 2018)
“The Deadliest Flu: The Complete Story of the Discovery and Reconstruction of the 1918 Pandemic Virus” by Douglas Jordan with contributions from Dr. Terrence Tumpey and Barbara Jester (December 17, 2019)
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.
“How Artists tried to Make Sense of the World in the Wake of the 1918 Flue Pandemic” by Anna Purna Kambhampaty (May 5, 2020)
“The Spanish 1918 Flu and the COVID-19 Disease: The Art of Remembering and Foreshadowing Pandemics” by Joseph L. Goldstein. (October 15, 2020)
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:
Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature(Columbia University Press: 2019)
Not ready to commit to her 344-page treatise? Check out her related essay in The Paris Review:
“How Pandemics Seep into Literature” by Elizabeth Outka. (April 8, 2020)
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).
“Yosano Akiko and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918–21” by Janine Beichman. (July 29, 2020)
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 1919 Influenza Blues” by Essie Jenkins.
“Jesus is Coming Soon” by Blind Willie Johnson.
The virus was also the subject of Yiddish plague songs, as this article in Tablet explains.
“Yiddish Plague Songs: American Penny Tunes Captured the Enormity of Early 20th-century Epidemics” by Shalom Goldman. (April 29, 2020)
Last but not least, the 1918 influenza pandemic influenced or inspired classical composers like Prokofiev and Stravinsky.
“Music in the Time of Pandemic: Brilliant Compositions Written in the Years of the Spanish Influenza” by Heather O’Donovan. (April 22, 2020)
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?
Consider eating less meat (if you are not already vegetarian) or switching to an entirely plant-based diet.
Or support one of the myriad organizations launching initiatives to conserve environments, track viruses and advocate for One Health initiatives, including World Wildlife Fund, Global Virome Project and The Jane Goodall Institute.