Query: Exhibit of Influenza Epidemic

Greetings, Historians of Medicine,

My college assigns a book for all incoming students to read over the summer, and the library likes to create a display case exhibit on the theme of the book each year. This year’s book is Thomas Mullen’s _The Last Town on Earth_, which deals with flu, quarantine, etc — if you’re curious, here’s the PR blurb:

If you were scanning through the motley museum collection at the college, and requesting help from local historical sources, what sort of medical techniques would you hope to represent in some material
form? European or American, any vaguely early-20th-c suggestions are more than welcome.

Just answer off the top of your head, if an answer shows up there, I’ll promise *not* to cite you if you’re making an educated guess! 🙂 I think my educated guesses are better than the librarian’s, but the WHOM collective’s are better than mine, especially when I don’t have time to refresh my memory.

Best wishes for the rest of August!


Nina E. Lerman
Associate Professor of History
Director, Maxey Museum
Whitman College
Walla Walla, WA 99362 USA

Published in: on August 14, 2009 at 5:17 pm  Comments (5)  

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  1. From Karen Reeds:

    Hi, Nina

    What a good idea!

    Here’s a quote I collected from a New Jersey woman who was born notlong after 1918:

    “My father told me about the flu epidemic in 1918, when caskets were piled high along Springfield Avenue in Newark [NJ] where I was born.
    The caskets lined the street for blocks.” Florence Werner Chaplin,Rahway NJ 1999 (see Reeds, Karen,
    A State of Health: New Jersey’s Medical Heritage, Rutgers UP, 2001, p 8).

    Jennifer Harmsen gave an outstanding presentation about the 1918 flu epidemic, “Death Unspoken: The Impact of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic in New Jersey,” to the Medical History Society of New Jersey, May 2007. I’m copying this to her and hoping she can share the PowerPoint with you. And her lesson plan for her elementary school students.

    As you look for artifacts and images, think more broadly than medical techniques–since there really wasn’t much doctors could do. Who was in charge of public health in the town and state–what actions did
    they take? How did families care for themselves? Who took care of the orphans? What did kids do cooped up at home when schools were closed (no TV…)* What did the drugstores run out of? How did doctors and
    funeral homes cope? Did the milkman, paper-boy, and iceman still deliver? How did town get the word out to the rest of the state that it was quarantining itself–telegrams?

    I’d look for: letters dated 1918, especially ones that were fumigated or soaked in disinfectants like vinegar or carbolic–the smell might still linger
    Bottles of carbolic and other disinfectants
    Face masks/rubber gloves
    Quarantine posters
    Photographs of hospitals, morgues, and graves of flu victims
    State vital statistics; church baptism/burial records (did births take a dip in the wake of the flu?)
    Party-line phones
    Memorabilia of WWI veterans returning home (ask your local VFW)
    X-rays of people with flu (that was pretty new technology–had it
    reached Walla Walla?)


    *This inspired by my daughter and son-in-law who had mild cases of H1N1 in London last month. Their computer broke, so the cabin fever was worse than the flu. They reported that the NHS was handing out
    tamiflu to anyone who asked. They had arrangements with friends to be one another’s “flu buddies.” I’ll send them a copy of The Last Town on Earth.

  2. From Nina:

    Huge thanks to all of you who replied on and off the listserv!


    PS. A quick reference: Katherine Arner pointed me to http://1918.pandemicflu.gov/
    which has some photos, posters, and also state-by-state accounts of
    the spread of the flu.

  3. From Heather Munro Prescott:

    Hi Nina,

    I would second Karen’s suggestions. I would also add that nursing care was just as important as medical techniques, if not more so.

    In addition the website mentioned below, I would include the Digital Archive at University of Michigan:

    and the PBS website: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/influenza/

    By the way, I’m archiving these replies at the WHOM blog. It would be great to include the replies off-list as well.

  4. […] on August 15, 2009. Filed under: AAHM, medical history | Just wanted to let you all know about a discussion of what to include in an influenza exhibit over at the other blog I manage for Women Historians of […]

  5. From Susan Reverby:

    It was the nursing care that made a lot of the difference too. I would look in old issues of the Trained Nurse and Hospital Review and the American Journal of Nursing for stories from the period.

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