When the disease struck early in the year, virtually nobody was prepared. With the public distracted by great events and governments reluctant to report the truth, the contagion spread worldwide. By the time this pandemic ended more than a year later, many businesses had shuttered and millions had died unnecessarily, due in part to media misinformation and breaches in quarantine.
This narrative feels chillingly familiar; however, it describes not COVID-19 but the Influenza Pandemic of 1918.
In her new book, Constructing the Outbreak: Epidemics in Media and Collective Memory, Dr. Katherine A. Foss uses 1918 Lawrence as a case study in the role of media and how popular narratives form around major diseases. The Watkins Museum of History will host a live discussion with Foss at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 19 about the 1918 pandemic and its parallels with today.
“Much debate has ensued over how the pandemic began,” Foss explains, but evidence points to Camp Funston, Kansas, as the likely site of origin. The first civilian outbreak of what was called “Spanish Flu” was reported at Haskell Institute, here in Lawrence, on March 30, 1918.
With governments and populations concentrated on the turmoil of the Great War, the deadly flu engulfed much of the world within months. Three waves of Spanish Flu eventually killed some 50 million people, including 675,000 Americans. Until 2021, it was the deadliest outbreak in American history.
Foss, professor of journalism and strategic media at Middle Tennessee State University, provides fascinating insights into how Lawrencians and their media outlets responded.
Local and national newspapers and magazines often distorted the truth of the pandemic, downplaying its scale or even ignoring it. At other times, they urged people to obey health measures such as quarantines and mask wearing in the name of patriotic wartime duty. As one bit of propaganda explained: “The Kaiser laughs when you spread disease, so stop the coughs and cover the sneeze.”
“For decades,” Foss writes, “the influenza pandemic was downplayed or even written out of history.” But recent events have shown, once again, the power of media and popular narratives during times of disease.
— Will Haynes is Director of Engagement and Learning at the Watkins Museum of History.