How will these resources help you?

The 1918 influenza or ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic is often taught as a footnote to the First World War, despite the fact that it caused more deaths in less time than the war itself. This topic presents a good opportunity to discuss with students why some histories are promoted over others – are some inherently more important, or just more interesting to us? Does it depend on how well it is documented? Does the way we tell the history of an event affect whether people want to engage with it? For example, the First World War has ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, whereas it is hard to argue that there were any winners during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Equally, the fact that it was (to a large extent) out of our control makes the story potentially more scary and less appealing to tell. The COVID-19 pandemic has rendered it more important than ever to understand past pandemics. It feels critical that we understand how people responded to such adversity in the past and what effects these large-scale events have had on the world.

Shaping the modern world

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World

by Laura Spinney, published by Vintage Publishing, (2018), 9781784702403

This accessible book details the events of the influenza pandemic and argues that the outbreak profoundly shaped the modern world. Spinney not only outlines how the pandemic contributed to the end of the First World War, but also explains how it may have had a knock-on effect on other major world events, such as Indian independence. Spinney also provides a detailed explanation of why it was commonly called ‘Spanish flu’ – partly due to the Spanish media reporting the disease in more detail than other nations, rather than the disease actually originating there – leading to the Spanish feeling stigmatised. This is an important aspect of pandemics to consider – how are diseases named and what impact does this characterisation have on society? This feeds into why the WHO decided to name the virus involved in the coronavirus pandemic a strictly scientific name, rather than referencing geographical areas, as we have learnt from past events that how we name a disease can have a damaging effect on society and even on politics.

Experiences of the American public

American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

by Nancy K. Bristow, published by Oxford University Press, (2017), 9780190238551

This book promotes the voices of American citizens during the pandemic, ranging from health professionals to patients and their families. Bristow employs a wealth of primary sources to go beyond public health responses and treatment recommendations and look at how real people felt about the events of the time, using the private recollections of individuals and their families. Her wide-ranging look at the pandemic explores how gender, class, race and religion affected how people responded to and experienced the pandemic. You could use this aspect for a class discussion on the way in which we perceive events is affected by the frame through which we view them: the way that one individual experiences and even records a large event like a pandemic may be very different to that of another in different circumstances.

Looking at the archives

Directive from Washington D.C. regarding treatment and procedures

published by US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

The US national archives hold a range of records from the influenza pandemic. One of the most interesting is the directive from Washington D.C. regarding treatment and procedures, which is the ninth resource on the page. This official list provides a great opportunity for pupils to analyse a primary document and draw parallels between the interventions at play during the influenza and the COVID-19 pandemics. What are the similarities and what are the differences? Is there anything that surprises them?

Audiovisual clip

A House Through Time - Cholera

published by BBC, (2018)

A thorough exploration of the epidemic which troubled Britain 1854.

Further Materials

Fever Year: The Killer Flu of 1918 by Don Brown, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Young Readers, (2019), 9780544837409 Find this book
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry, published by Penguin, (2020), 9780241991565 Find this book
Rose Parkin is a freelance science editor, working in educational publishing. She is also a medical history and humanities student, studying for an MA at the University of York.

Text © Rose Parkin, 2020.