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Stories from the 1918 flu come alive in a new podcast series

Going Viral: The Mother of All Pandemic

Hannah Mawdsley and Mark Honigsbaum

Where did the virulent virus that became the 1918 influenza pandemic first emerge and under what conditions? What made it so deadly—especially for young adults? What traces did the disease leave in art and in memory? These and many other questions are the focus of Going Viral, a new podcast marking the 100th anniversary of the devastating epidemic.

The program features two expert hosts: Mark Honigsbaum, a historian and Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at Queen Mary University London, and Hannah Mawdsley, a Ph.D. student conducting research on the 1918 influenza at the Imperial War Museum. The first five episodes, each approximately a half hour in duration, were released this past June and July. More are scheduled for this fall. Each episode is densely packed, reflecting the complexity and richness of the topic and the hosts’ efforts to represent diverse approaches and perspectives.

The podcast is a wide-ranging, multidisciplinary examination of the pandemic, spanning molecular research, social history, and current artistic engagements. It features an extensive series of guest appearances by virologists, microbiologists, historians, writers, and others whose work has shaped our current understanding of the event. These include Laura Spinney, a British science journalist whose book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World was released last year, and the American virologist Jeffery Taubenberger, who coined the term “mother of all pandemics” and whose team first recovered and analyzed 1918 influenza virus RNA from preserved tissue samples.

The first two episodes detail the work of Taubenberger and others on the genetics of the virus and what made it so virulent. Episodes 3 and 4 are focused primarily on the three competing hypotheses of the geographic origins of the 1918 pandemic and include interviews with proponents for each: French origin, advocated by Queen Mary College virologist John Oxford; Kansas origin, advanced by author John Barry; and Chinese origin, argued for by historian Mark Humphries.

The series’s exploration of the three competing hypotheses serves to highlight what they all have in common—namely, the conditions that set the stage for a pandemic. These include (i) a nexus of multiple species with (ii) substantial mobility in (iii) crowded, highly stressful conditions.

Throughout the series, there are fascinating glimpses of the social and cultural impacts of the pandemic. Spinney, for example, describes how the Jewish “black funeral” ritual tradition was revived during the flu epidemic in Odessa, Ukraine. Indian-born British choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh describes a forthcoming performance inspired by the Spanish flu and explores how the pandemic was experienced outside of the West. In India, for example, the death toll reached between 18 million and 20 million.

The podcast encourages listeners to consider not just the statistics but also how the flu was experienced and subsequently remembered by those who survived it. Early flu deaths, we learn, were often classified as “purulent bronchitis” or “pneumonic plague.” Only retrospectively were these cases understood to be the result of the influenza. And although the 1918 flu has been referred to as a “forgotten pandemic,” the program reminds us that it was not forgotten everywhere—and certainly not by survivors. In New Zealand, for example, seven publicly accessible commemorative monuments can be found in various parts of the North and South Islands.

What makes this podcast especially compelling is the inclusion of on-location recordings and the dramatized readings from diaries and other first-person accounts. For example, in episode 3, “The Blue Death,” the hosts visit the military cemetery at Étaples, the main British base in France during the war and, according to Oxford, the site of the first pandemic flu deaths. Through poignant epitaphs and the story of one soldier in particular—Private Harry Underdown, who died of “bronchitis” in 1917—they convey the deep grief and loss the disease caused. Passages from volunteer nurse Dorothea Crewdson’s diary in episode 3 reveal the sense of helplessness among medical personnel at Étaples at the height of the epidemic in the autumn of 1918.

In episode 5, “Global Impacts, Local Traces,” the hosts describe inscriptions made in the rock faces at the North Head quarantine station off Sydney, Australia. One records the quarantine of the R.M.S. Niagara and includes the ship’s name, the date (October 1918), and the word “influenza” etched within the borders of a waving flag. Returning soldiers were confined at North Head for up to 3 months, we learn—a frustrating delay that nevertheless contributed to the comparatively low flu mortality reported in that country.

Ultimately, Going Viral succeeds in illustrating the incredible impact of epidemic disease on all facets of human life. By the end of the series, listeners will no doubt find themselves considering the conditions under which the next major pandemic might emerge and hoping for a better outcome.

About the author

The reviewer is at the University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand.