Spanish Flu Focus of NEH Summer Seminar

Some people like to take a leisurely vacation in the summer. Not this group of lifelong learners.

Instead, participants in the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Seminar on the Spanish Influenza embarked on a journey of discovery, which included a visit to the National Library of Medicine’s (NLM) History of Medicine Division. The 13 teachers participating in the seminar heard presentations on the library collections by Drs. Stephen Greenberg and Jeffrey Reznick, attended a seminar on influenza research led by Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and conducted research on their own projects using the NLM’s collections.

The NEH Summer Seminar on the Spanish Influenza was one among dozens of seminars that took place this summer, enabling participants to examine important texts, study works of well-known authors, or review scholarship on a significant historical period or event. The principal goals are to deepen teachers’ understanding of the subject through reading, discussion, reflection and writing, and to sustain their intellectual commitment to teaching. Toward that end, the seminar brought together teachers from elementary and secondary levels for three weeks of intensive reading, discussion and research. The director, an expert in the field, guided discussion of common readings and offered advice for individual study and projects. Hosted by Virginia Tech, the seminar was led by Dr. Tom Ewing, a Professor of History there, with the support of Virginia Tech University Libraries and the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

The seminar began in Blacksburg, on the Virginia Tech campus, where the teachers began their research projects and participated in seminars led by Nancy Bristow, a visiting scholar from the University of Puget Sound and the author of American Pandemic (which is based in part on research completed at the NLM). During the second week, the teachers traveled to Washington, DC, where they conducted research at the Library of Congress, the NLM, and at both National Archives locations in Washington, DC and College Park, MD. The final week was spent back in Blacksburg, where the teachers heard presentations about the global pandemic in 1918 by Professor Matthew Heaton, took part in a session on contemporary research by computational epidemiologists from the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, and then presented their own research projects.

Group photo of the participants standing in front of a wall of photographs

NIAID’s Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger (sixth from right) with the NEH Summer Scholars at the National Library of Medicine, July 2015. [Photograph by Wilsonia Cherry, NEH.]

The participating teachers and their schools are:

  • Katie Daitoku, Kelseyville High School, Kelseyville, CA
  • Judy Dalgo, Ocean Springs High School, Ocean Springs, MS
  • Neil Ecker, South Western High School, Biglerville, PA
  • Jeffrey Ewen, John Paul II School, Terre Haute, IN
  • Brenda Klawonn, Aurora High School, Aurora, NE
  • Natalie Lartigue, Jefferson Parish High School, Marrero, LA
  • Wyatt Matthews, Bronx Guild High School, New York, NY
  • Kevin Painter, South Gibson County High School, Medina, TN
  • Sara Seal, Eagle Ridge Academy, Minneapolis, MN
  • Sally Sizer, Read Mountain Middle School, Cloverdale, VA
  • Benjamin Trask, Gildersleeve Middle School, Hampton, VA
  • Victoria Vicente, Thoreau High School, Thoreau, NM
  • Cathy Walker-Gilman, Campus Middle School, Denver, CO

At the NLM, the teachers began with an overview of the library collections by Chief of the History of Medicine Division, Dr. Reznick, followed by a more detailed guide to locating materials in the collections by Dr. Greenberg. The morning concluded with a presentation by Dr. Taubenberger, Chief, Viral Pathogenesis and Evolution Section, Laboratory of Infectious Diseases, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on the topic Influenza: From Bench to Bedside and Back Again. The presentation demonstrated how virologists use historical evidence to understand the evolution of human influenza, and then use this knowledge to develop and refine increasingly effective vaccinations. The teachers praised Dr. Taubenberger’s “fascinating presentation” for providing “invaluable context” for their study of the 1918 influenza epidemic.

The teachers spent the remainder of the day conducting research related to the influenza. One of the important resources at the NLM is the multi-volume history of the US Army Medical Corps in World War One, available in print form in the Reading Room of the History of Medicine Division and also available electronically through the NLM Digital Collections and the Medical Heritage Library, of which the NLM is a principal contributor. Volume IX of this history includes an extensive discussion of the Spanish flu epidemic as part of the larger analysis of communicable diseases in the war. Given their areas of research, some teachers were especially interested in the tables and charts showing the rates of admissions of flu patients at the peak of the epidemic. These charts clearly indicate that the soldiers most recently inducted into the military had much higher death rates, consistent with the higher pace of disease transmission in those camps preparing new recruits for the European front.

The NLM collections also provided important resources for understanding public health measures implemented in many cities. A placard from the United States Public Health Service, for example, warned that influenza was spread by droplets from the nose and throat, and thus encouraged the public to “cover each COUGH and SNEEZE with handkerchief.” This advice was consistent with the warnings that appeared in newspapers throughout the fall of 1918, as public health officials sought to advise the public on ways to prevent further spread of the disease.

Many of the teachers used resources from the NLM in their final posters and presentations. A photograph of American soldiers in an influenza ward in Aix-les-Bains, France, for example, appeared in one teacher’s poster about the impact of this disease on the military in 1918.

Wilsonia Cherry, NEH Deputy Director of the Division of Education Programs, attended the seminar held at the NLM. “I was very pleased to see the eagerness with which the NEH Summer Scholars engaged with the fascinating material to which they were being exposed,” Ms. Cherry stated. “The teachers found in the presentations a wealth of information about the history of the epidemic—some of it recently uncovered—that they were confident they would be able to use in their classrooms. They loved learning, too, that they would be welcome as return visitors to the NLM, to explore this and other subjects further. As some of them remarked, such an introduction to this unique resource was a wonderful gift, both for their intellectual development and for their growth as teachers.”

The NEH Summer Seminar on the Spanish Influenza is part of a broader collaboration involving Virginia Tech, the NLM’s History of Medicine Division, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, made possible in part by the formal partnership between the NLM and the NEH. In April 2016, the agencies will join together with the Wellcome Library (UK) to host the workshop Image and Texts in Medical History, which will bring librarians, faculty, and graduate students to the National Institutes of Health for a two-day workshop on digital humanities and medical history.

By guest contributor Dr. Tom Ewing, Professor of History, Virginia Tech University