When the 1918 Flu Pandemic Became Relevant Again

John Wigger

I hope that you and your loved ones are well. These are extraordinary times, the likes of which none of us could have predicted a couple of months ago. For those of us who teach at Mizzou, the new realities offer challenges. Teaching online is simply not the same as interacting with students face to face.

But there are also opportunities. Difficult circumstances are when it means the most to offer a kind word and a bit of understanding. More specific to our profession, history is about building context from past experiences in order to understand our present lives. Way back in February, before the earth moved beneath our feet, I skipped over the 1918 flu pandemic in my survey course on American history since the Civil War. It just didn’t seem all that relevant.

This week I backed up and added a podcast lecture on the so-called Spanish flu, drawing partly on a prescient set of 2019 articles on the CDC website. Photos of health care workers in masks from a century ago look eerily similar to today. But the differences are just as important. The almost complete lack of a centralized response to the 1918 pandemic, which killed 50-100 million globally, is much different from what we see happening around us now. We learn by analogy, but only to the extent that we understand the people and events we are comparing ourselves to. Particularly in times like these, this is something we can help our students see.