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Remembering the Spanish Flu


In 1918 a flu pandemic swept across the world lasting two years from January 1918 - December 1920. It infected 500 million people around the world and killed up to 100 million of them.

Hannah Mawdsley
Hannah Mawdsley at the Imperial War Museum.

It struck a world exhausted by years of war and affected almost every corner of it; while the cities of Europe and the United States were hit hard, some of the worst mortality was experienced on remote Pacific islands.

Despite the horrific cost of the epidemic it’s victims weren’t commemorated like the victims of the First World War. Few memorials were erected to mark the event, leading some to call the 1918 flu a ‘forgotten’ pandemic.

Certainly, when compared to other contemporary horrors - such as the First World War, for example -we know relatively little about how ordinary people experienced the pandemic.

But an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded PhD has been studying a unique collection of documents that reveal the human side of the tragedy - and prove that the epidemic was anything but “forgotten”.

Hannah Mawdsley is working on collaborative doctoral partnership scheme with Queen Mary and the Imperial War Museum (IWM) to investigate a huge cache of letters collected in the 1970s by the journalist and historian Richard Collier, and later donated to the IWM.

In the early 1970s he had placed newspaper adverts all around the world asking people to send him their memories and eyewitness accounts of the Spanish Flu epidemic - and had thousands of responses.

“I don’t think he was expecting nearly as many as he received!” says Hannah Mawdsley. “His private correspondence is clear: he felt pretty overwhelmed.

“I think the sheer number of letters he received illustrates that while the flu may have been institutionally ‘forgotten’ it was very much remembered by ordinary people, and the act of remembering it mattered to them.

“Some letters even have comments like: ‘it’s about time someone did what you are doing’.”

Richard Collier got a lot of worldwide support for his project. The letters received by Collier reveal in incredible detail the reality of living through a pandemic at a time when there was no real medical or scientific understanding of what a virus was.

“They were trying whatever they could to stop the disease spreading and save lives,” says Hannah. Some of the letters were written by medical professionals, others by ordinary members of the public; many by children who had lost their parents or siblings. But even those written from a medical perspective contain a lot of personal detail.” 

There were also some diary entries and photographs included in the collection. The letters formed the basis for Collier’s 1974 book The Plague of the Spanish Lady: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919.

“Interestingly, when I started looking at the book it was immediately clear that it was based on a lot of letters from Australia - and these weren’t present in the IWM collection,” says Hannah. “So, I knew we didn’t have access to all the letters he received. There had to be more.”

Through the IWM, Hannah sent a letter to Collier’s last known address, and the reply revealed that the house was being cleared for sale by the now-deceased writer’s descendants. Hannah was invited to visit and look for the rest of the letters. “We obviously rushed down there and after hours of dusty searching we were about to give up - and then we found them!” she says. “We also uncovered a lot more personal correspondence about his flu project.”

So, given the enthusiasm with which people around the world responded to Collier’s call for personal memories of the Spanish Flu, why has the epidemic been ‘forgotten’? “It’s argued by some historians that the reason why the pandemic has been ‘forgotten’ was that it was overshadowed by the First World War,” says Hannah. “But for me that’s a far too simplistic explanation. For a start, using the word ‘forgotten’ implies that no-one remembers it - which is obviously untrue, as these letters show; the epidemic survives both in private memory, and in the impact it had on healthcare and public health policy worldwide.

“However, it is true that there is relatively little formal commemoration, certainly when compared to the First World War. I think this is because the narratives of the war were more useful to the state and so they drove that commemoration forward.

“Governments needed to control the story of why so many had died - particularly as so many of them were conscripted civilians - and had to assert the patriotic value of the conflict through national memory. They just didn’t feel the need to memorialise the Spanish Flu in the same way.”

Without those big moments of coming together in official remembrance, it seems the memory of this terrible tragedy was left to endure in the hearts of those who had been there. And it might have died with them - if they hadn’t been called on to write down those memories and send them off in an envelope, over 45 years ago.

Further information

Join the ‘disease detectives’ Mark Honigsbaum and Hannah Mawdsley as they investigate the most devastating pandemic of all time: the 1918 Spanish influenza. Part scientific detective story, part historical inquiry, 'Going Viral' takes listeners to the scene of a viral crime and in the process recovers the experience of the world’s deadliest virus, which is 100 years old this year. If the world were haunted by another devastating pandemic, how would we cope? 'Going Viral' is supported by Wellcome. Follow our news on Twitter @GoingViral_pod.

Hannah is involved with ‘Going Viral: the Mother of All Pandemics’, a new Apple podcast, listen to this at: goingviralthepod.libsyn.comw. Hannah is also co-curating on the Spanish flu at the Florence Nightingale Museum which opens on 20 September 2018.

Header image copyright: GoingViral

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