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.
One of those students, Ethan Kibbe of Penn State, said the undertaking has been more meaningful as he’s experienced life during COVID-19.
“It was unique to be doing this research when the coronavirus pandemic hit because I was able to relate to many of the stories I was reading,” Kibbe said. “I was able to get a unique glimpse into what daily life was like over a century ago. It was unique to be able to compare stories from around the globe. The ability to relate to all these different accounts because of my own experience with coronavirus has made the research more interesting, and it has allowed me to understand the reactions and livelihoods of these people despite the century time gap.”
Kibbe’s twin brother, Nathan, a fellow Penn State student, is also helping Eicher with the study.
“I would say the research has impacted my view on COVID rather than vice versa,” Nathan said. “During the Spanish flu, very few treatments were available, and there was certainly no hope of a vaccine. It has been about a year since COVID began, and while it can seem like a long time, and it’s easy to complain, I think we all take for granted how much we understand about COVID now.”
Currently in southwest Germany, Eicher is conducting Spanish flu research in rural parts of the country as well as France and Switzerland, pinning the locations of the London letters’ authors, gauging how close the survivors lived to each other and determining whether they lived in urban or rural areas.
COVID-19 has added a dimension to Eicher’s research. While uncovering Spanish flu survivors’ stories, he’s using his findings to compare their reactions to the 1918 pandemic with modern Europeans’ reactions to the coronavirus.
According to Eicher, there’s an astounding difference between Spanish flu survivors’ and COVID-19 survivors’ responses to the respective pandemics.
Unraveling a mystery
The coronavirus continues to highlight this mystery, which he said has furthered his curiosity.
“The COVID pandemic really deepens the mystery of why (the Spanish flu) left such a small impression on the popular culture of the post-World War I era versus COVID’s apparently major impact on today’s popular culture,” Eicher said. “The COVID pandemic has certainly influenced my interest in unraveling this mystery. Specifically, COVID has influenced my interest in understanding the cultural role of doctors and medical scientists in 1918 and today.”
Ultimately, Eicher said, it’s the separate eras in which the pandemics occurred that highlight perhaps the biggest difference between them. People’s attitudes in 1918 juxtapose those of a modern-day society experiencing a disease in a much different cultural context.
“I think one major difference is that we have higher expectations that there is a clear and well-defined plan for unforeseen health crises,” Eicher said. “We’ve certainly been conditioned by books and movies that a clever and attractive group of doctors and scientists will ‘race against the clock’ to discover a ‘magic bullet’ that sets everything right within a few days or weeks. In 1918, doctors and scientists did not enjoy the cultural prestige that they do today, so people had lower expectations of what they could accomplish.”
The implications of that today?
“After a hundred years of our culture celebrating the steady progress in understanding and treating diseases, I think our expectations might not square with our actual capabilities,” Eicher said.
COVID-19 has presented him challenges, Eicher said, as travel restrictions are keeping him from visiting the 15-20 additional archives.
In the face of restrictions, many in Germany are complacent, even in denial of the virus’s threat, unlike their 1918 counterparts, who had a better attitude toward their plight, according to Isabel Gehrig, a University of Freiburg student and German native participating in Eicher’s study.
“As it comes to (COVID-19), I see many people who are complaining a lot about the restrictions,” Gehrig said. “In Germany, we have a huge movement against the restrictions, including persons who do not believe in the virus at all, also connected with conspiracy theories.
“And, many times when I heard that or saw someone on television complaining about having to wear a face mask in public, I thought about all the people back in 1918-19 who had to deal with a whole other dimension of things to cope with the pandemic, and still they did not complain as much as we do today,” Gehrig said.
Despite minor roadblocks like travel restrictions, Eicher’s goals remain steadfast. He’s collected more than 400 single-spaced pages of data, and aims to complete the research in a year, estimating he will eventually collect more than 20,000 pages of information.
Eicher said he will publish a book on his research in a few years, but it’s a process that can’t be rushed.
“Don’t expect to see (the book) anytime soon,” Eicher said. “My goal is for it to be as researched and methodical as possible. Good research takes time. It’s never wise to assume your first impressions are right, or draw hasty conclusions.”
While he continues his research, Eicher will share his journey with the Penn State Altoona community. He was offering a webinar at 12:15 p.m. on a recent Thursday via Zoom, co-sponsored by the history and world languages programs at the university.
Through the leg of his research that has coincided with COVID-19, Eicher took away lessons he said people today can learn from the 1918 pandemic.
“We can learn that there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “Another thing we can learn is humility. We may be able to send humans to the moon and put 20 billion transistors on an integrated circuit chip, but we aren’t clever enough to manage the infinite complexity of the natural world.”
Eicher said that while modern medicine and technology give us a sense of security, we aren’t invincible and we can still learn a lot from survivors of the 1918 pandemic, who handled hardship with grace despite more dire circumstances than we face today.
“We live at the mercy of Mother Nature,” Eicher said. “There’s a lot that can threaten our species without warning. Even with our increasing technologies, we should not be so prideful to assume that we can foresee all unexpected crises.”
“We should measure progress by comparing our responses to the responses of past societies who faced similar situations. The 1918 flu was much more deadly than (COVID-19), but it appears to have caused less civil, political and economic discord. Our medicine has progressed in the past 100 years, but our ability to weather unforeseen crises has not progressed as much.”