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The 1918 Flu Faded in Our Collective Memory: We Might ‘Forget’ the Coronavirus, Too



The legacy of the 20th century’s deadliest pandemic shows how large groups remember—and forget—their shared past. Online:
The legacy of the 20th century’s deadliest pandemic shows how large groups
remember—and forget—their shared past
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In 1924 Encyclopædia Britannica published a two-volume history of the 20th
century thus far. More than 80 authors—professors and politicians, soldiers and
scientists—contributed chapters to These Eventful Years: The Twentieth Century
in the Making as Told by Many of Its Makers. But the book’s sprawling 1,300
pages never mention the catastrophic influenza pandemic that had killed between
50 million and 100 million people worldwide only five years earlier. And many
history textbooks in subsequent decades just note the 1918–1919 flu pandemic as
an aside when discussing World War I, if at all.
Until quite recently, the pandemic had remained strangely faint in the public
sphere, compared with other momentous events of the 20th century. Monuments
and federal holidays commemorate people lost in both World Wars. Many popular
museums and blockbuster movies recount the sinking of the Titanic and the Apollo
moon missions. But the same cannot be said for the 1918 flu (often referred to as
the “Spanish flu” because of mistaken beliefs about its origin). Of course, the
pandemic was not forgotten entirely: many today are aware it occurred or even
know of ancestors who succumbed to it. But the event seems to form a
disproportionately small part of our society’s narrative of its past.
That such a devastating pandemic could become so dormant in our collective
memory puzzled Guy Beiner, a historian at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in
Israel, prompting him to spend decades researching its legacy. “We have an
illusion. We believe that if an event is historically significant—if it affects many,
many people, if it changes the fate of countries in the world, if many people die
from it—then it will inevitably be remembered,” he says. “That’s not at all how it
works. And the Spanish flu is exactly a warning for that.”
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Beiner began collecting books about the 1918 pandemic 20 years ago. For a long
time, they emerged in a very slow trickle. But now, as the world reckons with
COVID-19, he can hardly keep up with the outpouring of both nonfiction and
fiction. “I have, in my office, three stacks [of novels] waiting for me—huge stacks,”
he says. Previously a niche topic even among historians, the 1918 flu has been
compared to the current pandemic in terms of the fatality rate, apparent
effectiveness of masks and social distancing, and potential economic impact. In
March 2020 alone, the English-language Wikipedia page for “Spanish flu” garnered
more than 8.2 million views, shattering the pre-2020 monthly record of 144,000
views during the pandemic’s 2018 centennial.
The worldwide “forgetting” and ongoing rediscovery of the 1918 flu provide a
window into the science of collective memory. And they offer tantalizing clues
about how future generations might regard the current coronavirus pandemic.
Pioneered in the early 20th century by sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, the study of
collective memory has garnered widespread interest across the social sciences in
recent years. Henry Roediger III, a psychologist at Washington University in St.
Louis, defines collective memory as “how we remember ourselves as part of a group
... that forms our identity.” Groups such as nations, political parties, religious
communities and sports fandoms, he explains, weave events from their collective
past into a narrative that reinforces individual members’ shared sense of who they
Researchers often use open-recall methods to study groups’ collective memory of
well-known historical events. For example, Roediger and his colleague James
Wertsch, also at Washington University in St. Louis, asked Americans and Russians
to name the 10 most important events of World War II. Americans most often cited
W H A T I S C O L L E C T I V E M E M O R Y ?
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the attack on Pearl Harbor, the atomic bombings of Japan and the Holocaust. Most
Russians highlighted the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk and the Siege of
Leningrad. The only event that appeared on both lists was D-Day, known in Russia
as “the opening of the second front.” The events most strongly recalled by people in
each country, the researchers say, reflect that nation’s narrative framework, or
schema, for remembering the past.
Such a study could indicate what specifics about the 1918 flu people are aware of.
But “as far as I know, nobody’s done it,” Wertsch says. “If you did a survey, you
would come up with nothing.” Even in making comparisons with COVID-19, he
says, few individuals can cite significant details about the earlier pandemic.
Wertsch notes that collective memory seems to depend largely on narratives with a
clear beginning, middle and end. “If there’s one cognitive instrument that is the
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most ubiquitous, most natural..., it’s narrative,” he says. “Not all human cultures
have arithmetic number systems, let alone calculus. But all human cultures use
For the countries engaged in World War I, the global conflict provided a clear
narrative arc, replete with heroes and villains, victories and defeats. From this
standpoint, an invisible enemy such as the 1918 flu made little narrative sense. It
had no clear origin, killed otherwise healthy people in multiple waves and slinked
away without being understood. Scientists at the time did not even know that a
virus, not a bacterium, caused the flu
. “The doctors had shame,” Beiner says. “It
was a huge failure of modern medicine.” Without a narrative schema to anchor it,
the pandemic all but vanished from public discourse soon after it ended.
Unlike the 1918 flu, so far COVID-19 has no massive war with which to compete in
memory. And science’s understanding of viruses has dramatically improved in the
past century (although many COVID-19 mysteries remain). Yet, in some ways, not
much has changed since our ancestors’ pandemic. “Even if our experiment in
lockdown, in its sheer scale and strictness, is unprecedented, we’re thinking in the
same way as they were” more than 100 years ago, says Laura Spinney, author of
Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World.
“Until we
have a vaccine, our main way of protecting ourselves is social distancing, and that
was their main way of protecting themselves then.” The current controversy about
masks has a precedent, too: for instance, nearly 2,000 people attended a 1919
meeting of the Anti-Mask League of San Francisco.
Research on how political polarization affects the formation of collective memories
is scant. Roediger and Wertsch suspect that divisiveness does increase the salience
of an individual’s recollection of an event. But Wertsch questions this effect’s
potential influence on a cohesive collective memory of the current pandemic. “The
virus is just not an ideal character for an ideal narrative,” he says.
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Even the race to develop and distribute a vaccine is unlikely to yield a strong
narrative, according to Wertsch. “It’s conceivable that we might see a hero scientist
emerge like Louis Pasteur in the 19th century,” he says. “But it’s noteworthy that
our memory of him is precisely of him and not any particular ... epidemic.” Still,
with or without a strong story, COVID-19 will be much better documented than the
pandemic that occurred 100 years ago. Could exhaustive media coverage
strengthen a collective memory?
While the 1918 flu raged, newspapers and magazines did cover it extensively. Meg
Spratt, a lecturer in communication at the University of Washington, notes that
prominently featured “biomilitaristic”
language. Many articles framed the situation as a battle between humans (mainly
government officials) and the disease. But the press of the day published “very little
on the experience of the victims and survivors themselves,” Spratt says. Instead
coverage emphasized experts and authority—almost exclusively white men. Spratt
also saw evidence that World War I overshadowed the disease. “When influenza
deaths surpassed war deaths in Fall of 1918, The New York Times ran the news as a
small story on an inside page,” she wrote in a 2001 paper on the topic.
Spratt perceives certain parallels between the coverage of the 1918 flu and that of
COVID-19. “You still have this emphasis on the public health experts trying to come
up with some sort of policies or recommendations to protect people,” she says. “But
today there seems to be this amplification. I think that comes partly from the
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different media technology we have.” Since the Internet and social media have
enabled ordinary citizens to publicly document their lives during the pandemic,
Spratt says, “there’s going to be richer material about what people actually went
through.” In this way, from firsthand accounts of essential workers to reports on
racial and socioeconomic disparities
in COVID-19’s impacts, the media landscape of
2020 is providing a more complete picture of the current pandemic.
Photographs, too, could help to build a collective memory of COVID-19.
Psychological research has consistently shown that humans’ visual memory is much
stronger than our recollection of words or abstract ideas. Thus, widely distributed
images can form the backbone of a collective memory, Roediger says. History is
filled with such iconic imagery: American troops raising the flag on Iwo Jima; the
Twin Towers collapsing on 9/11; Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national
anthem. But “the cameras tend to stop at the door of the sick room or of the
hospital,” Spinney notes. “We tend to not go into that space.” Few images show the
dramatic symptoms, such as a blue face and bleeding from the ears, suffered by
many who contracted the 1918 flu. Similarly, striking photographs that could
reinforce collective memory are scarce in today’s news reports of hospitals running
over capacity, shortages of personal protective equipment and high death tolls in
nursing homes.
Even if no iconic images emerge, though, individuals will certainly remember how
COVID-19 affected them and their families. The same was true for the 1918 flu: in
1974 historian Richard Collier published a book compiling the personal
recollections of more than 1,700 people from around the world. But as historians
have discovered, collective memories ebb and flow according to the social context of
the time.
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This year is not the first time a new pandemic has prompted reexamination of the
one in 1918. The 20th century saw two more flu pandemics, which occurred in 1957
and 1968. In both cases, “suddenly the memory of the Great Flu reoccurs,” Beiner
says. “People begin looking for this precedent; people begin looking for the cure.”
Likewise, during the avian flu scare in 2005 and the swine flu pandemic in 2009,
Google searches worldwide for “Spanish flu” spiked (though both increases were
dwarfed by the one that occurred this past March). All the while a growing body of
historical research has been fleshing out the story of the 1918 flu, providing the
foundation for a significant resurgence of its memory in the public sphere.
Beiner sees the current crisis as a tipping point in how society will remember the
1918 pandemic. Among his collection of books about it, he says, “none of them
became the big novel, a book which everybody is reading. I think this might change
now.” Beiner predicts COVID-19 will inspire a best-selling novel or major film
centered on the flu of 1918. This type of cultural landmark could serve as an anchor
for public discourse about the event, fortifying the present wave of social
As for COVID-19, Beiner anticipates similar “surges in memory and then lapses in
memory” over the coming decades. “We’re going to have a complicated story. And
it’s going to always be a dialectic, dynamic forgetting and remembering working
together—what happens in the public sphere and what’s relegated to the private
sphere,” he says.
A stronger collective memory of the 1918 flu could also help create the narrative
schema necessary to maintain COVID-19’s public profile after today’s pandemic
ends. If monuments, museums or commemorations are established, they, too,
would provide a social framework for continuing discussion of the current crisis. In
fact, the New-York Historical Society is already collecting items related to
COVID-19 for a future exhibit. “I think there will be much more impact this time
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because now we are aware that we didn’t remember, in a public way, the Spanish
flu of 1918,” says José Sobral, a social anthropologist at the University of Lisbon.
Wertsch is not so sure. “In a matter of a few years,” he says, “we might forget this.”
He suspects that how the coronavirus pandemic ends—and whether it is followed
by other pandemics—will determine whether nations can weave a narrative about
COVID-19 as part of a collective memory. “It’s only by knowing the end,” Wertsch
says, “that we know the meaning of the beginning and the middle.”
Do you have ancestors who were affected by the 1918 pandemic? If so, we’d like to
hear from you to keep the memory alive. Send a message to the editors
at telling the story of those ancestors—or let us know how
COVID-19 has impacted your life.
Read more about the coronavirus outbreak from
Scientific American here. And
read coverage from our international network of magazines here.
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