Dr. Wise on Influenza: Rare Silent Film Shows How They Tried to Educate the Public About the Spanish Flu a Century Ago (1919)

“Pics or it didn’t hap­pen,” says the Inter­net, a phrase typ­i­cal­ly “used in jest,” writes Erin Ratelle at Space and Cul­ture, as “a counter to an out­ra­geous claim of events. How­ev­er, its root is pred­i­cat­ed on the notion that media is inte­gral to being or exis­tence,” that we must record every­thing. Such implic­it under­stand­ing was only in its infan­cy in 1918, when the influen­za out­break known as the Span­ish Flu began, which per­haps goes some way toward explain­ing why a viral pan­dem­ic that killed mil­lions around the world—far more than World War I—is so under­rep­re­sent­ed in the his­tor­i­cal record.

These days if a Utah coun­ty com­mis­sion meet­ing about masks for chil­dren gets thronged by unmasked pro­test­ers, we get almost-instant video at The Wash­ing­ton Post. Images fil­ter out through Twit­ter and Face­book, or move in the oth­er direc­tion, and mil­lions see them with­in hours. Dur­ing the 1918 flu pan­dem­ic, unmasked pro­test­ers against mask laws also abound­ed, but cov­er­age of their stunts took months to move from local papers to nation­al out­lets, who even­tu­al­ly cov­ered the San Fran­cis­co Anti-Mask League’s stri­dent refusals. The dev­as­tat­ing epi­dem­ic, how­ev­er, esti­mat­ed to have infect­ed one third of the world, was almost entire­ly absent from silent film at the time.

Cin­e­ma of all kinds avoid­ed the sub­ject, writes Bry­ony Dixon at the British Film Insti­tute (BFI): “It’s aston­ish­ing to think how invis­i­ble the first pan­dem­ic in the time of cin­e­ma is from the film record. Apart from one infor­ma­tion­al film, which sur­vives in the BFI Nation­al Archive, the influen­za pan­dem­ic of 1918/1919 doesn’t appear in British film at all. There were no news­reel reports, and no fic­tion films were made that even men­tioned the three waves of the pan­dem­ic that struck the coun­try in the final year of the First World War and would kill 200,000 peo­ple” in the UK and 500 mil­lion world­wide.

This does not mean there are no films about plague and pesti­lence from the time. But the present seemed to have been too painful. Film­mak­ers looked back to Boc­cac­cio, one of whose Decameron sto­ries was adapt­ed for the screen. “It must cer­tain­ly have been eas­i­er,” Dixon writes, “for silent era audi­ences to con­tem­plate pan­dem­ic with­in the moral frame­work of the medieval peri­od.” Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death was adapt­ed by Fritz Lang in a screen­play for Otto Rippert’s 1919 The Plague in Flo­rence. F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nos­fer­atu is, arguably, about dis­ease, as is its source, Bram Stoker’s Drac­u­la. But fic­tion and doc­u­men­tary most­ly stayed mum about the dead­ly flu pan­dem­ic.

In 1918, the War had near­ly every Euro­pean nation (and the U.S. at that point) pre­oc­cu­pied. Gov­ern­ment con­trol over major media out­lets cen­sored cov­er­age of the dis­ease, osten­si­bly to avoid a pan­ic. The stag­ger­ing death tolls of war and infec­tion were over­whelm­ing. A polit­i­cal nar­ra­tive took shape to sug­gest a cul­prit, Spain, which was neu­tral dur­ing WWI, and the first coun­try to begin cov­er­ing the dis­ease in their press (hence the “Span­ish Flu,” which did not orig­i­nate in Spain). The one excep­tion to the black­out in the BFI archive is the short infor­ma­tion­al film at the top, Dr. Wise on Influen­za.

Pro­duced under the aus­pices of Sir Arthur New­sholme, the Chief Med­ical Offi­cer of the Local Gov­ern­ment Board (LGB), the film arrived a lit­tle too late to do much good after the sec­ond wave of infec­tions began in 1919, and it was not wide­ly dis­trib­uted. The short film pro­motes wear­ing masks, and it tells a very famil­iar sto­ry, as Dixon explains:

The ‘doc­tor’ uses the device of a fic­tion­al sto­ry in which a rather dim Mr Brown coughs and sneezes over col­leagues in the office and the street, before going on to infect 100 peo­ple at a the­atre (we see a rare ear­ly glimpse of the Empire Leices­ter Square, which was show­ing a musi­cal, The Lilac Domi­no).

It doesn’t end well for Mr Brown, and an on-screen title lists the grim totals of deaths in British cities, just as we’ve become used to see­ing today. Oth­er par­al­lels with the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion are spooky: the prime min­is­ter, Lloyd George, like Boris John­son, was hos­pi­talised for days with the virus, and an anx­ious nation was told it was ‘touch and go’ for a while.

His­to­ry has been rhyming all over the place late­ly, maybe the most poet­ic thing about the ugly times we’re liv­ing in. As much as we might have believed that the world, or our par­tic­u­lar cor­ner of it, had changed, we’re find­ing out how lit­tle progress we’ve actu­al­ly made. Iron­i­cal­ly, one of the most remark­able dif­fer­ences between the ear­ly 21st cen­tu­ry and every­thing that came before—the omnipres­ence of cam­eras and video—has accel­er­at­ed these real­iza­tions. We can now wit­ness, in ways no one pos­si­bly could have in 1919, just how much of the past we’re drag­ging along behind us.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Hap­pened When Amer­i­cans Had to Wear Masks Dur­ing the 1918 Flu Pan­dem­ic

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

Japan­ese Health Man­u­al Cre­at­ed Dur­ing the 1918 Span­ish Flu Pan­dem­ic Offers Time­less Wis­dom: Stay Away from Oth­ers, Cov­er Your Mouth & Nose, and More

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

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