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Sharing "the Flu" with Students

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Influenza is generally not at topic we humans like to think about. Just hearing the word “flu” evokes negative connotations of coughing, high fever and body aches -- none of which are pleasant reminders of a misery that nearly every human being has experienced. This year, however, marks the 100th anniversary of the devastating influenza pandemic of 1918. There is no better time than winter 2018 to discuss the historical significance of this outbreak. Here are some resources to get started:

Documentary film is an easy way to introduce the 1918 influenza to students in a US history survey course. I assign the documentary film “Influenza 1918” (PBS) every semester in United States History II because influenza offers me, an historian with no formal training in the history of science or medicine, a bridge to introductory discussion of public health. Students begin to consider the history of vaccinations and the public use of surgical masks and are forced to reconcile the crisis of spreading influenza with the needs of wartime mobilization. I like this particular film for its focus on family histories. There are other documentary films on the 1918 influenza crisis with decidedly greater focus on science including “We Heard the Bells” (US Department of Health and Human Services), which examines the study of flu victims’ remains preserved by their burial in the permafrost.

If there is time for only a brief reading on the topic, historian John Barry’s “How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread across America” (Smithsonian Magazine) offers a succinct history of the pandemic in the States. This article may serve as an introduction to larger class discussion that could include documents from the National Archives digital collection, “The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918”. In addition to images, the collection includes reports on the spread of influenza at US military establishments and among Native Americans. Finally,  “Ten Myths About the 1918 Flu Pandemic” by Robert Gunderman (Smithsonian Magazine) provokes students to think not only about the flu as an historic event but also to consider our nation’s memory of the period.

World civilization classes may be enriched by reading Susan K. Kent’s The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 (The Bedford Series in History and Culture). Through a collection of primary sources Kent enables an international study of this pandemic and includes materials from the United States, Europe, parts of Asia, Nigeria, and South Africa.

If, like me, you have struggled in the past with integrating science and medicine into your survey courses, the influenza outbreak of 1918 is a very accessible topic for twenty-first century college students. Since students are already familiar with what it means to be afflicted by the flu, their connection to the subject matter is great, which makes for informative and energetic classroom conversations.

Are there other topics in the history of science and medicine that you have successfully integrated into a survey course? Please share!

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.