While doing reading for my upcoming project on the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, I was struck by something in particular: a glaring lack of information on the subject. One would think that there would be plenty of sources to be found on such a demographically significant period in history. In the singular year that the influenza raged worldwide, it infected 500 million people and killed between 50 and 100 million of them. The death toll, even at its most modest estimate, exceeds that of World War I (15.9 million) and is on par with that of World War II (50 to 80 million). No corner of the world was left untouched, whether it be the trenches of Europe, the Samoan islands, or even the arctic villages of northern Alaska. Hartford, Connecticut, where my parents work, was almost completely shut down.
In this university’s library, there are upwards of 100 books on World War I. There are under ten on the influenza, and even less are focused on the 1918 pandemic. These books, like those on the bubonic plague, are shelved in the medicine section. I then tried to research the pandemic by way the time period itself, not necessarily the disease. In a 600-plus page book literally titled 1918 (Gregory Dallas), the same year that three to five percent of the world’s population succumbed to influenza, the disease doesn’t even merit a full page. Why?
While searching the general disease section, I was struck by a passage from Andrew Nikiforuk’s The Fourth Horseman. Nikiforuk quotes Catholic philosopher Jacques Ellul’s depiction of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (from the Book of Revelations) as central to history itself: ‘“all history depends on them and there are only these forces in history.”’ Nikiforuk interprets the first horseman as representative of God; the second, as representative of war and power. The third and fourth are more sinister: the former represents famine, whereas the latter is both pestilence and death. Nikiforuk argues that it is the Fourth Horseman that is the most significant, citing the empires and armies flattened by disease and the changes in social attitudes and structures. He then points out the strange willingness of people to forget this: ‘…we don’t like to think that we are a part of history anymore, or that we are walking memories of past plagues.’ In short, those living today much prefer to think of plagues and epidemics as nasty relics – problems people faced only in the absence of modern medicine and cleanliness. Others have indirectly shared his view; Terence Ranger and Paul Slack, for example, note a predisposition for epidemiological history to be ‘Whiggish’ in nature in their Epidemics and Ideas: Essays on the Historical Perception of Pestilence. Historians have had a history of portraying disease as something increasingly vanquished by modernization and therefore less relevant today.
This is exacerbated by the fact that disease is often very difficult to explain: the virus causing the 1918 pandemic, for example, was only discovered in 1995 and completely identified in 2005. Historians for most of the twentieth century, therefore, would have seen the pandemic as something unpleasant, unexplained, and irrelevant in a modernizing world. It’s not that there isn’t primary information on the flu – countries tend to be pretty good about tracking how many of their people are dying – but rather for a long time, it seems, nobody wanted to use it. While I don’t think this will hinder me too much on my project – in which I will (hopefully) track the disease’s progression along transportation networks – it is certainly striking and, I think, unjustified.