Image 1 - Crothers family with Minnie Crothers in the centre with children - Image courtesy of Clare Ablett

Spanish Flu: A Global Pandemic

In our latest Blog Post, Claire Ablett from National Museums of Northern Ireland, reflects on the Lecture on “Spanish Flu: A Global Pandemic”, held in partnership with Living Legacies – One of the Arts & Humanities Research Councils funded World War One Engagement Centres.

As the First World War was drawing to a close and the prospect of peace began to materialise, a deadly virus emerged. This influenza strain, commonly known as the Spanish Flu, resulted in the deaths of between 20 and 50 million people, a higher death toll than that of the First World War. The Spanish Flu conference aimed to highlight the largely forgotten history of this global pandemic with particular focus on how the disease affected people in Ireland and the medical advancements that were made during this period.

Despite the ferocity of the outbreak, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 has become an overlooked and at times forgotten part of global history, which is surprising when we consider its wide impact and the incredibly high death toll. Estimates of between 50 and 100 million deaths far surpass that of the First World War, a conflict that has been remembered as one of the deadliest in history. To explore the local and global impacts the Spanish Flu outbreak had both at home and abroad, a public conference organised jointly between National Museums Northern Ireland and the AHRC Living Legacies 1914-18 WW1 engagement centre gathered leading experts in Belfast.

Northern Ireland is currently in the midst of what is termed the Decade of Centenaries, an important time in our history between 1912 and 1922 in which we have been looking at events such as the Home Rule Crisis, the First World War, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme to name a few. To highlight these, we have embarked on a programme of exhibitions, talks and conferences with particular emphasis on the period 1914-18. The Spanish Flu emerged at the start of 1918 and reached its height during the final months of the year.

I also had a personal reason for wanting to remember the Spanish Flu at its centenary.

Image 1 - Crothers family with Minnie Crothers in the centre with children - Image courtesy of Clare Ablett
Crothers family with Minnie Crothers in the centre with children – Image courtesy of Clare Ablett

We didn’t actually have any images in the museum archive that could be appropriated directly to the influenza epidemic so we used this photo of my family. The woman sitting in the middle is my great grandmother, Minnie Crothers, sitting with her four children. My Nana is on her knee. Minnie died Nov 18th 1918 aged 39 from the Spanish flu so, quite by accident I had timed the event to coincide almost to the day with the anniversary of her death 100 years ago.

My great grandfather Thomas was a labourer soldier and had returned from the war just before her death. As a single father of four children and without employment now that the Frist World War was over, Thomas made the decision to emigrate with his family to Canada when my Nana was 6 years old. Life was very hard for them as it took several months for Thomas to find a job and afford a house to live in. Unable to look after the children during this time, they were temporarily placed in an orphanage, which was very traumatic for my Nana and her elder sister who received regular beatings. Eventually they were removed and went to live with Thomas and his new wife Lizzie who became a wonderful stepmother to the children.

This is just one story amongst thousands and yet, the Spanish flu does not receive the same commemoration or remembrance as past conflicts or national events. The idea of remembering within a private sphere and forgetting in a public was the main thrust behind keynote speaker Guy Beiners talk. Guy travelled from Israel where he teaches as Professor of Modern History at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He provided his expertise on the idea of memory; why we choose to remember certain historical events and not others.

Guy Beiner speaking about commemoration and memory of the 1918 Flu - Image courtesy of Clare Ablett
Guy Beiner speaking about commemoration and memory of the 1918 Flu – Image courtesy of Clare Ablett

Over the past century public commemoration of the flu was barely, if at all, visible. Nonetheless, behind a façade of social forgetting, families who suffered from the ravages of the disease often maintained private recollections. At the beginning of his talk, he cited Gina Kolata, Science and Medicine reporter for the New York Times, who highlighted the absence of Spanish Flu from academia in her 1990’s publication Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that caused it. She studied microbiology, diseases, took history courses on the 20th century, and yet the flu was never discussed. She specialises in writing about science but up until the 1990’s she had never heard about the Spanish flu. Gina’s and her husband’s families were both affected but the connection with the flu was something she had only recently discovered. Gina remembered her father heeding the advice of an old doctor who lived through the flu and, as a result, would blast every respiratory illness with antibiotics in an effort to prevent another family going through the same frightening experience.

Guy went on to point out how the 20th century has seen many traumatic events and catastrophes that are prominent in public memory but it seems the Great Flu has been eclipsed by the Great War. There are countless commemoration sites for the Great War but there are no official commemoration sites for the Spanish Flu of 1918. No museums, no monuments, no heritage centres have been dedicated to the flu, all the things we associate with sites of memory.

There is a huge amount of cultural memory of the Great War through art, literature, films but very little on the Great Flu. He quoted Virginia Woolf who was struck down by the flu at the age of 36. She wrote some ten years later that nobody writes about the flu because “The public would say that a novel dedicated to influenza lacked plot. They would complain there was no love in it”.
In recent years, general awareness of the pandemic has significantly grown and this rediscovery has initiated new forms of remembrance but there is still a dissonance between private remembering and public silence.

Patricia Marsh speaking about the Spanish Flu in Ulster - Image courtesy of Clare Ablett
Patricia Marsh speaking about the Spanish Flu in Ulster – Image courtesy of Clare Ablett

The issue of forgotten heritage has repercussions within the museum sector as it has left relatively little in the way of material culture. At the Ulster Museum there are no images and only one object in our entire collection that relates to the Spanish Flu. This is a Next-of-Kin memorial plaque awarded to the family of local man Robert Gordon Dowse. Born in 1886, he enlisted with the Royal Army Service Corps and died 19th December 1918 in France. Our History Curator Fiona Byrne carried out research on the man behind the plaque and discovered that he had died from influenza and pneumonia.

Next of Kin Memorial Plaque belonging to Robert Dowse - Image courtesy of National Museums NI
Next of Kin Memorial Plaque belonging to Robert Dowse – Image courtesy of National Museums NI

The plaque is now on display in the Modern History gallery at the Ulster Museum until the end of April 2019. It was not until April 1919 that the flu outbreak began to subside after a third severe outbreak at the beginning of that year.

The issue of forgotten heritage has repercussions within the museum sector as it has left relatively little in the way of material culture. At the Ulster Museum there are no images and only one object in our entire collection that relates to the Spanish Flu. This is a Next-of-Kin memorial plaque awarded to the family of local man Robert Gordon Dowse. Born in 1886, he enlisted with the Royal Army Service Corps and died 19th December 1918 in France. Our History Curator Fiona Byrne carried out research on the man behind the plaque and discovered that he had died from influenza and pneumonia.

 

The conference raised greater public awareness of the Spanish Flu of 1918 and helps us think about the ideas behind commemoration and why certain historical events are remembered over others. The last century has seen a number of flu-like epidemics sweep the globe. As we await the next one looming inevitably on the horizon, the influenza outbreak of 1918 becomes ever more relevant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *