Epidemics, over and above the human suffering they bring, create panic and disruption and expose weaknesses in social and economic structures. They leave exposed those most vulnerable in our societies. As scientists, governments, health organisations and authorities work to contain the spread of COVID-19, we as historians can explore and learn from the outbreak and management of epidemics in the past.

In this difficult time, the Society is compiling here a list of public-engagement resources to help our members and those interested in the history of disease. If you have any materials that you would like added to this list, please contact our webmaster, Dr Anne Hanley (a.hanley@bbk.ac.uk).

Thumbnail image credit: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/udapx935

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Beloved Heroine of Serbia: Glasgow’s coronavirus hospital named after Sister Louisa Jordan

Natasha Stoyce | 4 April 2020

News of the COVID-19 pandemic is absolutely inescapable. The headlines of both young and old succumbing to the virus are concerning at best and, quite frankly, terrifying at worst. As somebody who has studied an epidemic and pandemic from 100 years ago, many of the headlines have felt uncomfortably topical and it has been increasingly difficult to focus on my research. …

Covid-19 and the 1918 ‘Spanish ‘flu’: differences give us a measure of hope

Michael Bresalier | 2 April 2020

From the moment it became evident that the new coronavirus would become pandemic, there have been an outpouring of comparisons with the 1918 influenza. We have learned of its devastating death toll (50 million worldwide, equal in proportion to 200 million today), of effective and ineffective efforts to limits its spread, of its crippling impact on healthcare systems, of its costs to nations, communities, families and individuals, and of the failure of governments to take the threat seriously and to prepare their populations. …

The real lessons of the Blitz for Covid-19

Henry Irving, Rosemary Cresswell , Barry Doyle, Shane Ewen , Mark Roodhouse, Charlotte Tomlinson and Marc Wiggam | 3 April 2020

This policy paper is the result of a virtual roundtable focused on Britain’s response to bombing during the Second World War. Convened by Henry Irving and held on 25 March 2020, the discussion brought together a range of expertise on civil contingency planning carried out under the umbrella of Air Raid Precautions (ARP). It was chaired by History & Policy in collaboration with the Centre for Culture and the Arts at Leeds Beckett University. …

Hospital visiting in epidemics: an old debate reopened

Graham Mooney and Jonathan Reinarz | 9 April 2020

COVID-19 is exerting massive pressure on health care systems across the globe. While social distancing and self-isolation have been adopted as ways to ease such pressures, regulating visitors to healthcare institutions is another. … 

Being seen as an ‘NHS hero’ comes at a cost

Agnes Arnold-Forster and Caitjan Gainty | 21 April 2020

The fight against coronavirus has given rise to a new tradition. Every Thursday at 8pm people emerge from their homes or stand in their windows to applaud those working on the frontline of this pandemic. And though the Clap for our Carers website refers to all key workers, including delivery drivers and veterinary surgeons, NHS doctors and nurses are the focus. …

We’re stuck fighting a 21st century public health crisis with 100-year-old medical techniques

Caitjan Gainty and Agnes Arnold-Forster | 24 April 2020

We have emotionally and financially overinvested in the treatment of individual personal care for acute illness, while so seriously underinvesting in prevention. …

Flu epidemic of 1918 warns us of coronavirus risk to frontline workers

Ida Milne | 31 March 2020

Rite & Reason: Social Distancing can help us all protect our clergy, policy and health workers.

Revisiting Ida Milne’s “Nursing and Nutrition: Treating the Influenza in 1918-9”

Joshua Schlachet | 30 April 2020

As we find ourselves in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us continue to search for treatments, social distancing strategies, and ways to cope with our new normal. We also search for analogies. 

Lessons we can learn from the Spanish flu

Ida Milne | 15 March 2020

Strict rules and isolation were imposed in Ireland in 1910 to fight the Spanish flu pandemic.

What history tells us about health panics

Ida Milne | 9 March 2020

Adults in huddles, worriedly discussing a mystery disease the newspapers have been warning is on the way. Children eavesdropping, sensing the fear that is being hidden from them, become curious listeners, and search the newspapers for clues. The coronavirus in 2020? No, a “mystery plague” in the early summer of 1918, as the Great War lumbered towards its end.

What was life in Ireland like during the 1918 flu pandemic?

Dr Ida Milne is a historian of disease and author of Stacking the Coffins, Influenza, war and revolution in Ireland 1918-1919 (Manchester University Press). She joined Myles Dungan on RTE Radio 1’s History Show to talk about life in Ireland during the outbreak and to make some comparisons with the current coronavirus outbreak. Here are some edited excerpts from the discussion

Just how scared should we be of Wuhan coronavirus?

Ida Milne | 6 February 2020

History tells us that fear is always a key component of any novel virus which has the potential to become an epidemic or pandemic. How big is it going to be? How long to find a cure? Can we trust our health systems to manage the crisis? How safe is my family?

The Coronavirus Crisis: a humanities perspective

Ida Milne | 25 February 2020

The Wuhan coronavirus crisis—or COVID-19, as the World Health Organisation encourages us to call it to avoid scapegoating a region or people—gives cause for reflection on the useful work humanities scholars have done on similar crises, and will in the future on this one. Can our work on past epidemics help medical workers, governments and society in general get to grips with what is happening at present?

Tackling Covid-19: What we can learn from the 1918 Spanish flu?

Ida Milne | 14 March 2020

People consistently make a comparison: the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, the ‘Big One’, against which other epidemics of respiratory illness are measured. It killed upwards of 50 million people, according to the World Health Organisation—although we will never have a definitive number as death registration was then patchy in many parts of the world.

‘Patient zero: why it’s such a toxic term’

Richard A. McKay | 1 April 2020

Heightened fears surrounding COVID-19 have once again brought the idea of “patient zero” into public consciousness. Ever since it was coined by accident in the 1980s, this popular yet slippery term has regularly – and misguidedly – been applied to infectious disease outbreaks and public health efforts to control them.

History Does Have Something to Say

Virginia Berridge | 20 May 2020

In their contribution to HWO’s feature ‘Apocalypse Then and Now’, Guillame Lachenal and Gaetan Thomas argued that sometimes history has no lessons. To some extent, I agree: there can be facile ‘comparisons’ or, those dreaded words, ‘historical parallels’ with past epidemics. In recent years, perhaps coinciding with its impending and then actual centenary, the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic has gained particular prominence in outbreak discussions. Such comparisons pay little attention to the very different social and political structures which underpinned responses in the past.

DIY facemasks and the domestication of personal protection in the First World War

Michael Reeve | 13 May 2020

Revisiting the 1957 and 1968 influenza pandemics

Mark Honigsbaum | 13 June 2020

How do pandemics end? In different ways, but it’s never quick and never neat

Mark Honigsbaum | 18 October 2020

Body and Mind: Are we adequately prepared for the toll this pandemic will take on mental health? 

Rob Ellis, Rebecca Wynter and Rob Light | 10 October 2020

Death and the ‘Spanish Lady’: Suicide in Pandemic Times

Rebecca Wynter, Rob Ellis and Rob Light | 16 November 2020

Beating the anti-vaxxers: how star power can help squash vaccine myths

Peter Beaumont | 5 December 2020

Altruism, cash, coercion and the queen: How the U.K. could convince millions to get coronavirus vaccines

Karla Adam and William Booth | 16 December 2020

When Elvis Helped to Conquer Polio

Joanne Kenen | 18 December 2020

Could Beyoncé do for the coronavirus vaccine what Elvis did for polio?

John Woodrow Cox | 20 December 2020

The COVID-19 vaccination drive may be slow—but it’s already faster than any in history

Jeremy Kahn | 17 January 2021

Britons lament ‘U.K. variant’ label, as highly contagious version of coronavirus spreads around the world

Karla Adam and William Booth | 17 January 2021


Covid-19: Spanish Flu – What Can We Learn From History?

‘We’ve been here before’

Coronavirus and History

Living through history: documenting 2020’s coronavirus pandemic

Cornell University Richardson seminars online

Documenting COVID-19: News from the Wellcome Collection

The Wellcome Collection are focusing their efforts on ethical, collaborative and considered collecting. In the spirit of this, they have set up a slack channel to facilitate communication between those who have expressed an interest in ethical COVID-19 collecting.

The space is intended to be friendly, non-hierarchical and inclusive to all. While many in this group may represent heritage institutions, such as libraries, archives and museums, the forum is opened up to all who are interested in engaging with issues relating to collecting during a global pandemic. As such, participants acknowledge we are more than a sum of our parts, acknowledging the distributed network of collections in the UK and worldwide, to ensure a joined-up, sensitive, and responsible approach to contemporary collecting.

To join the slack channel, please follow this link: https://join.slack.com/t/documentingcovid19/shared_invite/zt-df27wfas-dNjLNncT2Ee7pW9Ea4HvNQ

Please add channels for particular topics you’d like to discuss, share documents, arrange virtual meetings … hope we can all use this as an opportunity to learn from each other and work collaboratively and sensitively. In addition, a survey has been created to collate institutional and individual collecting efforts. The results of the survey are open and can be viewed instantly, allowing individuals to find people with shared interests and concerns to contact directly. To participate and view the growing directory, please follow this link: https://forms.gle/t6QCQyiTTPiqnecq6

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