The only reading for this week is The Great Influenza by journalist John Barry. He starts by describing the history of medicine up to the outbreak, especially focusing on the shift from the way medicine was practiced (if it should even be called that) in the early and mid 19th century to the scientific and professional practice of medicine which began (in America) towards the end of the 19th century. He discusses in depth the formation of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the ways which it changed the field of medicine, and how it prepared American medical professionals for the upcoming epidemic. He credits most of this work and transformation to William Henry Welch,
He then goes on to explain the science behind the virus and the way it works. He argues the Spanish flu first appeared in Kansas, and was then spread to Europe by American soldiers. He next deals with that by discussing factors that enabled its rapid spread because of the American mobilization for World War I. He continues to document the flu's spread and mutation in Europe, and of course to the civilian population of America. He argues the epidemic could have been better dealt with by public officials, and their duties to the war inhibited their ability to fight the lethal virus in the social and political realms.
This book is problematic for several reasons. Based on discussions I've had I'm sure my classmates will elaborate on many of them vehemently and in depth. I will take a different tack. I'm not sure what the broader historical community (beyond my classmates) thinks of this book, but I noticed it is quite well reviewed by average people. This is a bit of a conundrum for public historians. We see and focus on the book's many problems, but it somehow has popular acclaim with the audience we want to reach. Why? Is it because the book is written by a journalist to be accessible to the general public and sold as history (despite not being as rigorous in its sourcing and citations as a history book should be)? At the same time, plenty of books written by historians are written primarily for other historians and are not very accessible to the general public. Is it possible to bridge this gap? I think it is. How do we do it? Maybe we can convince some of our academic historian brethren to write more often for a broader audience. Or, we can simply rely on our roles in museums, programs, etc. to reach our audience and augment books. And for the public who prefer to see and experience rather than read, we have to continue to implement other ways to bring history to them.
This brings up the topic of Spanish flu research we are doing as a class for our project. For this, I have been focusing on finding primary sources such as photographs and objects (I noticed my classmates already dug up plenty of newspaper articles and other print sources and decided to try to augment that with pictures and objects). Focusing on Philadelphia, the Mutter Museum was a natural first choice to look at. However, their collections are not accessible online, so communication with them will be necessary to determine if they have objects relating specifically to the Spanish flu.
However, I have had success in finding photograph collections not local to Philadelphia. Since the military played such a large role in the Spanish flu, I decided to try my luck with the National Museum of Health and Medicine, which has a large collection of medical records, photographs and objects related to the US Army. There I found three collections of photographs and charts relating to the Spanish flu (the collections guide is accessible here). They also have an online exhibit on the 1995 reconstruction of the virus.
Unfortunately, so far I have had less success with photos of civilians, which is probably the direction we will head with our work. I found some in the Library of Congress, mostly taken in DC (including some demonstrations of using stretchers), among a few others here and there. There should be a google search for objects and photos—I can find plenty of digital pictures, but locating real hard copies is harder. Fortunately, we still have plenty of time to build our resources.