Pandemic(s) History: A Growing Resource Collection

I’m Micaela Sullivan-Fowler, Ebling’s curator and history of the health sciences librarian. The bizarre timing of COVID-19s extraordinary impact on our personal and professional lives has not been lost on me, a public historian who has studied the history of the 1918 Pandemic. As a graduate student said to me, just days before the Library shuttered for the “safer at home” directive, “there [must] be some irony in a pandemic closing down an exhibit about a pandemic.”

Following this short introduction, scroll down for a growing resource collection for those interested in the Pandemic(s).

For the last year and ½, Ebling’s Historical Reading Room has been home to  my exhibition, Staggering Losses: WW1 and the Influenza Epidemic of 1918. Hundreds of campus and community members have visited this “memorial” to the soldiers, nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers and animals that gave their lives, or cared for others with innovative techniques and treatments, during that unprecedented time in history. Currently, I’m being asked by the media, students and others, to talk about the differences and similarities between the two Pandemics.

The short answer, is that our world is very different than it was 102 years ago, in terms of the ease of worldwide travel, the global supply chain, and in terms of economic supply and demand. Medical treatment is more sophisticated, both established isolation protocols, the availability of antibiotics and antivirals, and the existence of specialists in respiratory care and infectious diseases. Record keeping in terms of disease transmission and mortality and morbidity is more standardized and shareable… the list goes on. But similarly, in terms of the approach to the spread of the virus (in 1918, an H1N1, in 2020, the coronavirus), the dynamic remains the same, and the end game culprit, bacterial pneumonia remains clinically relevant.

It wasn’t called “flattening the curve,” or “social distancing,” but the intent was the same-  those cities that enforced quarantines, restricted public gatherings, and banned spitting, fared better than those that did not. No one presumes that COVID-19 will come near the postulated number that died in 1918, somewhere between 50 and 100 million, worldwide, in what was often, erroneously called “The Spanish Flu.” Still, no one wants to test that presumption. Stay home, wash hands,resist public spitting, don’t gather in groups. Basic, good advice then; still good, albeit inconvenient advice, now. Some are also arguing that testing for the COVID-19 virus, earlier, would have helped stave off the current trajectory. Lots of food for thought.

While sequestered, or taking a moment from caring for others, here is a growing list of resources for those interested in the two Pandemics and how they relate to one another. Also includes links to websites that provide information and images on the 1918 Pandemic. It will be added to as we move towards a time when we can meet again, with less than 6 feet separating us. Be well.

Online articles on the similarities and differences between the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the COVID-19 Pandemic. As the list grows, more thematic structure and bibliographic details will be added.

The Coronavirus is no 1918 Pandemic by Jeremy Brown, M.D. in the Atlantic

Why we should be careful comparing the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak to the 1918 Spanish flu from VOX by Dylan Matthews

Don’t let COVID-19 Unleash Bias by UW-Madison’s Judith Levitt, Phd and Louis Leavitt, M.D.

 Ten Myths About the 1918 Flu Pandemic from Smithsonian Magazine

Enforced Isolation in Spanish Flu Outbreak from

Associated Press’s Calvin Woodward: Virus-afflicted 2020 looks like 1918 despite science’s march, May 5, 2020

Compare the flu pandemic of 1918 and COVID-19 with caution- the past is not a prediction by Mari Webel and Megan Culler Freeman. June 4, 2020

Research Material on the Influenza Pandemic of 1918

Pandemics in History: A Short Bibliography by Columbia’s Stephen Novak.

Keep it Clean, the Surprising 130 History of Handwashing from The Guardian; writer, Amy Fleming and historian, Nancy Tomes

The Influenza Encyclopedia from the University of Michigan

What Happens if parades aren’t canceled during pandemics? Philadelphia found out in 1918, with disastrous results from Washington Post by Meagan Flynn

1918 Influenza: the Mother of All Pandemics by Jeffery K. Taubenberger and David M. Morens, in Emerging Infectious Diseases • Vol. 12, No. 1, January 2006

From Forbes, a Pandemic Double-Take, May 1st, 2020 (Photographs)




Acknowledgement: The “Flu” is Increasing placard from the Wisconsin Historical Society. Included in the  Staggering Losses exhibition.