How history forgot a 20th century pandemic

How could these times ever be forgotten? Historian Esyllt Jones explains why we don’t know more stories from an even more devastating global health catastrophe — the Great Influenza of 1918 — but how its complex toll is captured in a moving short story by Alice Munro.

Historian and lecturer Esyllt Jones explains why so many stories from the Great Influenza of 1918 disappeared

Nurses and teachers acting as volunteer nurses at isolation hospitals in Alberta and Saskatchewan during the influenza epidemic in 1918. (Courtesy of Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary)

Right now, it's hard to imagine that any global pandemic could ever fade into a routine fact of history. 

But Esyllt Jones says that is what occurred with a previous worldwide disaster, the Great Influenza of 1918. 

That pandemic faded despite a death toll in the tens of millions, and the loss of entire families and communities. 

The public health historian notes that: "There are decades of almost complete neglect of (the 1918 influenza) as a historical subject, during which many of the survivors died."

This poster issued by the Provincial Board of Health about the influenza epidemic in Alberta, provides instructions on how to make a mask. (Government of Alberta)
Researchers have been bringing the period back into sharper focus. But unfortunately, many of the complex human stories behind the facts have been lost, says Jones, a history professor at the University of Manitoba who has been studying the pandemic since the early 2000s.

Meeting with family members seeking answers, she is struck by "the extent to which flu survivors and their ancestors have struggled to comprehend their family histories in a society that had mostly elided any public memory of the pandemic."

The pandemic's absence and presence for people was the subject of her recent Avie Bennett Historica Canada lecture, presented by York University last March. 

Complicating the pandemic narrative

In Carried Away: Forgetting and Remembering the Great Influenza Pandemic in Canada, Jones points to the very defined way that flu pandemic history has been approached.

It's been characterized in the mainstream as a short-term and discrete event, with a starting point, a tense middle, and closure — a "dramaturgic form."

Yet as our own era of COVID has already shown us, Jones says, that "pandemics are messy and chaotic with layered multiple meanings." 

A person's experience of any pandemic depends on complex factors, including location, race, age, and economic status. 

The very duration of a pandemic may differ for people as well.

This was true for Indigenous communities in Western Canada, who experienced flu outbreaks both before and after 1918. They ultimately suffered the highest mortality rates in the country. 

Instead of forgetting their pandemic history, Indigenous communities vividly remembered their past in the decades that followed.

As Professor Jones says: "Pandemics are not the same drama for everyone." 

Finding historical insight through fiction

The 2020-21 pandemic has occurred alongside other historic moments, including the Black Lives Matter protests, and the violent last days of the Trump presidency. 

Similarly, Jones notes that the 1918 pandemic era occurred around a world war and global labour uprisings, including Canada's history-making 1919 general strike.

Soon after the 1918 pandemic, labour issues came to the fore globally. Seen here, groups clash in June 1919, during Canada’s largest worker action, the Winnipeg General Strike. (Archives of Manitoba)

Exploring disparate but concurrent events through archival material can be a challenging task for a historian. Jones found another type of insight about the 1918 era in a work of literary fiction.

Carried Away is a short story by Canadian Nobel Prize-winner writer Alice Munro. It was first published in 1991, and ended up in her collection Open Secrets

Set in a small Ontario town, the story touches down in different decades. It is told through the memories of a woman named Louisa, as well as men she encounters through her work as the town's librarian.

Jones admires how the story is told in fragments of time, where past and present collide. She appreciates its emotional insights, and how it "draws intimate connections between historical events" like war and pandemic.

Alice Munro's short story ‘Carried Away’ imagines connections between the First World War, the 1918 flu pandemic, and labour issues in a way that moved historian Esyllt Jones. It is from the Nobel Prize winner's fiction collection, Open Secrets. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press/Penguin Random House)

"I was just incredibly moved when I read it," says Jones.

Munro's narrative combines fictional lives with historical fact. Jones notes that it places "influenza victims and survivors in a tumultuous and violent world," and imagines their different realities around gender and class.

COVID era stories

When it comes to our own pandemic era, historian Esyllt Jones cautions that we cannot be complacent about documenting our realities. 

"It's really important that the stories of what's happening right now are preserved. And also the research that people are doing into the experiences of COVID-19 are preserved."

Social media timelines and online media sources are filled with pandemic stories right now, but archival history has been known to repeat itself, Jones says.

"We can't kind of go through this same pattern as we did with influenza, So I really hope that there are concrete (funding) commitments made from governments at all levels. I know there are tons of communities out there right now trying to preserve their COVID-19 stories, but it's not easy to do that without resources."

University of Manitoba historian Esyllt Jones has been studying pandemic influenza for two decades, and is the author of Influenza 1918: Disease, Death and Struggle in Winnipeg. (Todd Scarth)

About the lecturer: Esyllt Jones is a professor in the Department of History, as well as Dean of Studies, St. John's College, at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg. She is the author of several books including Influenza 1918: Death, Disease and Struggle in Winnipeg (University of Toronto Press, 2007).

About the lecture: The annual Avie Bennett Historica Canada public lecture is presented by York University's Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Canadian History in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.Its purpose is to promote the study of Canada's heritage and ensure the academic vitality of the discipline.The Chair was established at York University in 2004 by the Historica Foundation of Canada, endowed by York Chancellor Emeritus Avie Bennett. 

* This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.

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