Infectious Diseases in History and the 1918 Pandemic
Recent world events may have led historical novelists to consider depicting epidemic disease in their novels. I found some websites that provide good introductions to historical infectious disease information, then follow that with websites on the 1918 flu pandemic, and finish with a list of books on the latter. A future article will offer websites on other diseases besides influenza that have influenced history, such as tuberculosis, bubonic plague, and typhus.
WEBSITES PROVIDING INTRODUCTIONS TO EPIDEMICS/PANDEMICS
Browsing these may yield story ideas.
“Offering valuable insights to students of the history of medicine and to researchers seeking an historical context…” This site, offered by Harvard University, contains a wealth of information on historical diseases. If you click on “curated features” and then choose “Significant diseases throughout history,” you can view sections on the 1665 plague in London, Boston’s 1721 smallpox epidemic, the 1918-19 influenza epidemic, and others. Play around with the “Limit your search” box on the left of the home page, where you can locate lantern slides, caricatures, or pick a specific disease like malaria. A good place to start your research.
This page’s “epidemics” section contains information on bubonic plague, smallpox, and polio, with images of each. The smallpox page, for example, offers a drawing of what cowpox lesions looked like in the 1790s, and a photo of lancets used by Edward Jenner in the same period. The polio pages show examples of different types of iron lungs used to keep patients alive. There are links to related topics like war and medicine, and the history of hospital medicine.
“The museum’s rich collections span the entire history of antibody-based therapies and diagnostics.” The site explores the uses of antibody therapy to treat diseases from the 1890s to the present. If you click on “Tuberculosis testing” in the bar on the right, you can view images of patients taking the fresh air cure, sputum cups, and a ca.1900 slide of tubercle bacillus. “Battling tetanus” lets you view an alarming instrument that was used to pry open the jaws of a lockjaw victim. The pages have photos of various remedies used to treat the diseases in the past.
This site is offered by the American Social History Project/City University of New York. It offers primary source documents (some are transcripts) on smallpox among the Indians, oral history excerpts on the 1918 flu epidemic in Philadelphia, Kentucky, and Montana; AIDS, and cholera. It also offers related material on New York’s fight against microbes, and medicine and advertising.
MonGenes is a site “dedicated to Monmouthshire genealogy.” It offers this extensive timeline of epidemics in Britain, starting in A.D. 560 with a yellow fever pestilence in Wales. A medical glossary is included, and there is a link to a page with the history of cholera in Britain.
This section of the University of Manitoba’s College of Medicine Archives’ website provides an introduction to infectious diseases in general, with a subsection on the province of Manitoba. If you click on the drop-down menu item labeled “History of MB Medicine,” there are options for more specific information on polio and tuberculosis, including historical images.
WEBSITES ON THE 1918 INFLUENZA PANDEMIC
I highlighted this website in a previous medical-related article, so I’ll quote myself:
This website, hosted by the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine, “contain[s] the stories of the places, the people, and the organizations that battled the American influenza epidemic of 1918-1919.” The website says that 650,000 Americans lost their lives to the disease, so the epidemic had a huge impact on society in that decade. Do your characters live in Omaha or Spokane? The Encyclopedia offers articles, with footnotes on sources, about how the epidemic affected that particular city, and what city officials did to combat it. You can do a keyword search, or browse by people, organizations, or subjects, such as “fumigation” or “nursing shortage.” Clicking on one of those topics brings up a list of primary source documents to choose from. Those will display onscreen, and you can download the PDF of the document to make enlarging easier, because some of the originals are hard to read.
This site, by the New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage, offers an extensive list of chapters on the 1918 influenza pandemic in that country. There are chapters on how it affected the native Maori, how a New Zealand ship brought the disease to Samoa, and how the government responded.
The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard offers this site, “to provide journalists with a one-stop resource to help reporters, editors and newsroom managers get up to speed in reporting on pandemic influenza.” This particular page of the site gives the background of the 1918 influenza pandemic, and offers a bibliography for more research.
Hosted by the State University of New York’s University at Buffalo, this page lets you download a document intended for two debate teams to argue the question of why the 1918 flu was so deadly—was it geopolitical/socioeconomic conditions, or a biological cause of the strain being particularly virulent? Material supporting both sides are offered, plus an extensive bibliography.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer this archived (no longer updated) website on the 1918 pandemic flu. One story is related by the granddaughter of a Lakota Indian witness to the pandemic. Others tell of the necessarily hurried burials when the disease was rampant. Also available: quack cures, soldiers’ and immigrants’ experiences, and oral histories arranged by individual state.
These 16 digital documents (click on “view the documents”) are offered by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. They include a photo of streetcar conductors barring passengers who don’t have masks, several primary source documents on influenza among Native Americans, and a telegram from an Oklahoma official cancelling public meetings due to the disease outbreak.
This site is hosted by the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command, whose mission is “To preserve and present an accurate history of the U.S. Navy.” This page of the site is an overview of how the 1918 pandemic affected the operations of the U.S. Navy. In the bar to the left are other pages you can click on for additional information, such as a report on how the flu affected one particular transport ship, how it affected a California Navy yard, and the experiences of a Navy nurse being called out of a movie theater to report for immediate duty.
This site is offered by a commercial firm, History Press, but the information as a basic background of the 1918 flu in Britain may still be useful.
This is a “news in pictures” essay on the 1918 flu pandemic in Britain. Photos show barbers wearing masks while cutting hair, bus conductors spraying down the vehicle, and a cartoon depicting ways of avoiding infection.
This article from the online Canadian Encyclopedia offers a brief overview of the topic.
This Scottish government website offers a brief overview of how the disease affected Scotland.
The flu didn’t appear in Australia until early 1919. This site is by the National Museum of Australia and presents a substantial overview of the country’s experience in the pandemic.
BOOKS ON THE 1918 INFLUENZA
These books are owned by my college’s library, so I was able to examine them in person.
America’s forgotten pandemic: the influenza of 1918, new ed., by Alfred Crosby. Cambridge, 2003.
This concentrates on the course of the disease in the U.S. and the impacts on society. Some chapters concentrate on a particular location such as Philadelphia or Alaska. There’s a chapter on the disease’s effects on the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the war. Bibliographical notes are found at the end of each chapter.
Flu: the story of the great influenza pandemic of 1918 and the search for the virus that caused it, by Gina Kolata. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Kolata’s prologue says that she had a course in virology in college but the 1918 flu was never mentioned in her classes. While the book has historical content, it concentrates on the search to find the cause of the mysterious disease.
Great influenza: the epic story of the deadliest plague in history, by John M. Barry. Viking, 2004.
This is the book that has been referenced extensively in the media when writing about the current Covid-19 crisis, comparing it with 1918’s. A quotation in Barry’s afterword is particularly chilling: “Those who occupy positions of authority must lessen the panic that can alienate all within a society. Society cannot function if it is every man for himself. By definition, civilization cannot survive that.” The jacket blurb calls the book “magisterial in its breadth of perspective and depth of research.” A 20-page bibliography will lead authors to many sources that can be of help writing a novel set in this period.
Influenza in America, 1918-1976: history, science and politics, ed. by June Osborn. Prodist, 1977.
Historical novelists will be mainly interested in the first chapter, a history of the 1918 pandemic by Alfred Crosby. The rest of the book has documents related to the 1976 swine flu breakout.
Influenza: the last great plague, revised ed., by William Beveridge. Prodist, 1978.
While the medical information in the book is necessarily out of date, it does offer historical sections on how the disease was discovered, and a timeline of outbreaks leading up to 1918.
And these are some more recent titles I have not been able to examine but found listed in our consortium’s catalog:
A cruel wind: pandemic flu in America, 1918-1920, by Dorothy Pettit and Janice Bailie. Timberlane Books, 2008.
The catalog description calls it a social history of the pandemic, which sounds really useful for a historical novelist.
Pale rider: the Spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world, by Laura Spinney. Public Affairs, 2017.
The author’s emphasis seems to be on the social impacts of the disease.
Pandemic 1918: eyewitness accounts from the greatest medical holocaust in modern history, by Catherine Arnold. St. Martin’s, 2018.
Also published in the U.K. Eyewitness accounts could be extremely useful to generate story ideas.
Very, very, very dreadful: the influenza pandemic of 1918, by Albert Marrin. Knopf, 2018.
A children’s/young adult book, but they can be good introductions to a topic.
The August 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine contains an article on historical pandemics and what might be learned from them.
About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.