Penn State Professor Studying Stories of Spanish Flu SurvivorsHistorians in the News
tags: European history, pandemic, medical history, influenza
A year before COVID-19 began its global rampage, Penn State Altoona history professor John Eicher embarked on a one-of-a-kind study delving into the pandemic of a century past — the 1918 “Spanish” flu.
Eicher was in Berlin, Germany, doing research on 19th century German immigration to Texas when he realized it was the centennial year of the Spanish flu.
His curiosity brought him to various archives, and he was shocked to find the documents he sought had been virtually untouched for 15 years.
Fewer than five researchers had requested the archive’s Spanish flu documents since 2003.
“I really thought I found something pretty valuable,” Eicher said. “For the pandemic to have such little interest shown to it by historians, especially compared to World War I, I knew the documents were pretty special and had an interesting story to tell.”
Eicher seized the opportunity to explore the uncharted, with the information from the Berlin documents leading him to London, where he stumbled upon nearly 1,000 letters and interviews from European survivors of the 1918 pandemic.
Eicher’s discovery spurred his mission to write the first cultural history of the Spanish flu through a European lens, using a combination of archival research and the London documents.
The project, titled “The Sword Outside, The Plague Within,” is unearthing the stories of Spanish flu survivors and how they navigated through a historic pandemic that killed up to 100 million people worldwide, roughly 5% of the global population at the time.
“I’m engaging Europe as a whole,” Eicher said. “It is really exciting to open up new territory for historical investigation. The possibility for first-hand oral testimonies is only viable for about 80 to 100 years. After that, all is lost, so it feels very special to work with this exceptional document collection.”
Eicher gathered six students, five from Penn State Altoona and another from Germany, to dissect the London documents, looking for information such as the subjects’ symptoms and health care, as well as additional religious and political commentary.