A – Z Challenge: V — Viruses

Virus Histories​

Islay Shelbourne
IHR MRes Candidate

The Winter 2020 edition of the Bulletin of Medical History opens with a striking statement: ‘We are all historians of epidemics now.’[1] The authors of the edition’s introduction are largely referring to the massive upsurge in demand for medical historians to share their research as it relates to the current pandemic, but alongside that the journal makes clear that part of the labelling of all medical historians as ‘epidemic historians’ is the shared pandemic experiences that have shaped their work.

The impact of SARS-CoV-2 is undeniable for anyone currently undertaking academic research, be that in history or any other of the disciplines offered by the School of Advanced Study. That we can all consider ourselves united to some extent in our shared pandemic endeavours is a strange kind of comfort, but alongside a small sense of camaraderie with everyone pining for a BL Reading Room desk or rubbing tired eyes after days at our screens, I was also struck by the significance of the Bulletin’ statement as evidence of a shift in the historiography of pandemic disease.

I considered myself a historian of epidemics (at least in training) before the WHO was informed of a ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’ in China at the end of 2019. My undergraduate dissertation looked at the impact of epidemic mange on WW1 veterinary treatment, and my MRes thesis is on pandemic influenza and the development of virology as a discipline. Within my current research, and the PhD programme I will be starting in the Fall, I am mainly focussing on the 1918 Influenza Pandemic and the impacts it has had on our understandings of viruses. Studying one of the world’s worst pandemics whilst in the midst of another has provided me a fascinating perspective on the construction of history in a pandemic or post-pandemic world and is why the Bulletin of Medical History’s statement particularly caught my attention.

Forgotten Pandemics

The 1918 pandemic earned the moniker of the ‘Forgotten Pandemic’ due to its apparent absence from both public consciousness and historical memory. Of course, it was not entirely forgotten – the fact that it is considered ‘forgotten’ at all indicates that it has been at least partially remembered, and my research on virological science has proven that the spectre of the 1918 pandemic has haunted virology from its earliest 1918 laboratory days. However, the pandemic’s general absence from the historical record is notable. Outside of medical circles, there was very little engagement with the pandemic till later flu pandemics, as well as the emergence of HIV/AIDS rekindled a public interest in 1918 experiences.  

The cause of this historiographical dearth was a topic of much discussion at the first conference on ‘Spanish Flu’ held 80 years after the pandemic in 1998. Suggestions offered for the lack of historiographical engagement included: the overshadowing of the pandemic by the First World War’s Armistice, which fell during the second, deadliest wave; the omission of the medical profession’s failure to cure, or even isolate with certainty the cause of the pandemic due to it not fitting the triumphalist medical narrative of the 1914-18 conflict; or, as a 1921 article in The Times suggested the very fact that  ‘‘So vast was the catastrophe [of the pandemic]…that our minds… refused to realize it’.[2]

Beyond these reasons, however the conference and its accompanying edited volume also highlighted broader historiographical trends that contributed both to the pandemic’s initial exclusion, and its increasing re-emergence within historical thought. Within the edited volume’s introduction, editors Howard Phillips and Edward Killingray identify how in the years following the 1918 Influenza, histories of the pandemic were considered ‘utilitarian objects[s] for quite specific epidemiological investigation and, consequently…[were] seen through a narrowly medical science lens.’[3] Epidemic histories were treated as medical case histories, diagnostic tools intended at shedding light on the causes of the pandemic’s devastation but not offering commentary on its political, social or cultural impacts. Surveys of the pandemic’s statistical impacts were undertaken between the 1920s and 1960s, with some also beginning to engage with the pandemic’s social impacts, however for Phillips and Killingray it was the ‘changing intellectual climate in universities from the mid-1970s onwards’ that stimulated a true advancement in historiographical representation of the pandemic.[4] The Cultural Turn of the 1970s facilitated the development of new methods of historical study, including an increased focus on social history, gender studies and the practice of ‘history from below’. Phillips and Killingray highlight this alongside mention of the emergence of environmental history and the social history of medicine as not just new sub-disciplines but also ones which were considered ‘respectable’, thus allowing epidemics to begin to ‘be perceived as part of the mainstream of history and not as some quirkish phenomenon in the margins of the past.’[5]

Future Hopes

Environmental history has continued to offer valuable insights into histories of disease, with its influence only set to increase as further links between zoonotically transferred diseases and human-environment interactions are explored. So too have further sub-disciplines emerged able to shed light on still shadowed aspects of pandemic experiences. Postcolonial and disability studies consider the experiences of those beyond the typical white, Western and able-bodied purview of much of the existing historiography, whilst the rapidly growing field of animal history, with its ability to offer ‘animal-sensitive’ histories that utilise non-human perspectives to reconsider existing narratives, offers the potential of future ‘virus-sensitive’ histories that could reconceptualise human interactions with microbiological threats. These advances and more provide evidence of a future for pandemic histories that is far richer than that which existed when the 1918 pandemic first entered the historical record, and makes the prospect of all historians becoming ‘epidemic historians’ during this pandemic an exciting one given the representational scope of just what that could mean.

Even if we are not all historians of epidemics now – I am sure those in the broader humanities or social sciences, as well as historians who do not regularly deal with disease may question the categorisation – we are all at least contributors to the history yet to be written. Every footnote in our theses bemoaning inaccessible resources, every email paper trail of Zoom links and Teams Meeting invites, every photo of our video call set ups or Work-from-Home desk layouts, they are all parts of the journals we have inadvertently been writing of our own ‘plague years’.[6] My hope is that, with or without a new swathe of epidemic historians following on from this pandemic year, when future historians come to write, study or revaluate the history of this pandemic, they will be faced with a wealth of information so vast that this pandemic will never fall into the ‘forgotten’ realms of those that came before.

[1] Mary E. Fissell, Jeremy A. Greene, Randall M. Packard, James A. Schafer Jr. (Winter 2020) ‘Introduction: Reimagining Epidemics’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 94(4), pp. 543-562. (p.543).


[2] ‘The Great Death’, The Times, 2 February 1921, p.11.

[3] Howard Phillips and Edward Killingray (2003) ‘Introduction’, in Howard Phillips and Edward Killingray (ed.) The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19: New Perspectives. USA: Routledge, pp. 1-25 (p.14).

[4] Ibid, p.16.

[5] Ibid,pp.16-17.

[6] Mary E. Fissell, Jeremy A. Greene, Randall M. Packard, James A. Schafer Jr. (Winter 2020) ‘Introduction: Reimagining Epidemics’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 94(4), pp. 543-562. (p.543).

Written by Islay Shelbourne, IHR MRes Candidate

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1 Comment

  1. Very interesting. I never realized that the 1918 pandemic was so “forgotten.” I keep telling my kids to keep journals of this experience, but they’re not interested. Oh well. At least I’m keeping records!
    Black and White: V for Valhalla, Vaikuntha

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