The History of the 1918 Flu Pandemic, “The Deadliest Epidemic of All Time”: Three Free Lectures from The Great Courses

In one cas­cade of events after anoth­er, peo­ple are find­ing out the nor­mal they once knew doesn’t exist any­more. Instead it feels as if we’re liv­ing through sev­er­al past crises at once, try­ing to cram as much his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge as we can to make sense of the moment. 2020 espe­cial­ly feels like an echo of 1918–1919, when the “dead­liest epi­dem­ic of all time,” as The Great Cours­es calls the “Span­ish flu,” killed mil­lions (then the U.S. devolved into a wave of racist vio­lence.) By offer­ing exam­ples of both neg­a­tive and pos­i­tive respons­es, the his­to­ry, soci­ol­o­gy, and epi­demi­ol­o­gy of the 1918 flu can guide deci­sion-mak­ing as we pre­pare for a sec­ond wave of COVID-19 infec­tions.

The Great Cours­es start­ed offer­ing free resources on the coro­n­avirus out­break back in March, with a brief “What You Need to Know” explain­er and a free lec­ture course on infec­tious dis­eases. After catch­ing up on the his­to­ry of epi­demics, we’ll find our­selves nat­u­ral­ly won­der­ing why we learned lit­tle to noth­ing about the Span­ish flu.

The three-part lec­ture series here, excerpt­ed from the larg­er course Mys­ter­ies of the Micro­scop­ic World (avail­able with a Free Tri­al to the Great Cours­es Plus), begins by bold­ly call­ing this his­tor­i­cal lacu­na “A Con­spir­a­cy of Silence.” Tulane pro­fes­sor Bruce E. Fleury quotes Alfred Cros­by, who writes in America’s For­got­ten Pan­dem­ic, “the impor­tant and almost incom­pre­hen­si­ble fact about the Span­ish influen­za, is that it killed mil­lions upon mil­lions of peo­ple in a year or less… and yet, it has nev­er inspired awe, not in 1918 and not since.”

Epi­dem­ic dis­eases that have had tremen­dous impact in the past have become the sub­ject of lit­er­ary epics. Few epi­demics have accom­plished mass death “through sheer brute force” like the 1918 flu. The num­bers are tru­ly stag­ger­ing, in the tens to hun­dreds of mil­lions world­wide, with U.S. deaths dwarf­ing the com­bined casu­al­ties of all the coun­try’s major wars. Yet there are only a few men­tions of the flu in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture from the time. Fleury men­tions some rea­sons for the amne­sia: WWI “took cen­ter stage,” sur­vivors were too trau­ma­tized to want to remem­ber. We may still won­der why we should look back over 100 years ago and learn about the past when cur­rent events are so all-con­sum­ing.

“His­to­ry com­pels us not to look away,” pro­fes­sor Fleury says, “lest we fail to learn the lessons paid for by our par­ents and our grand­par­ents.” Faulkn­er, it seems, was right that the past is nev­er past. But we need not respond in the same failed ways each time. The abil­i­ty to study and learn from his­to­ry gives us crit­i­cal per­spec­tive in per­ilous, uncer­tain times.

Sign up here for a free tri­al to the Great Cours­es Plus now rebrand­ed as Won­dri­um.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Span­ish Flu: A Warn­ing from His­to­ry

Louis Arm­strong Remem­bers How He Sur­vived the 1918 Flu Epi­dem­ic in New Orleans

Watch “Coro­n­avirus Out­break: What You Need to Know,” and the 24-Lec­ture Course “An Intro­duc­tion to Infec­tious Dis­eases,” Both Free from The Great Cours­es

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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