Set to an atmospheric soundscape, Contagion is a dance installation inspired by the Spanish Flu. Choreography and digital visuals echo the scientific features of the virus: rapid, random and shape-shifting.
But what was the Spanish Flu pandemic? Where did it come from, and who did it affect? And why is it being commemorated now?
- The ‘Spanish’ Flu wasn’t actually Spanish
It became known as the Spanish Flu because Spain was neutral during the First World War, and reported freely on the disease. In contrast, countries that were actively engaged in the war censored bad news in the press to help maintain morale. In Spain, it was known as the ‘French Flu’.
- Its shocking symptoms also earned it different names – including the ‘Blue Death’
As a victim’s lungs clogged with fluids, their bodies became starved of oxygen. As a result, heliotrope cyanosis – a blueish-purple tinge – started to spread from their extremities, including their fingers, toes, nose, ears, and mouth. This was often a sign of impending death. Ellen Monahan, from Athea in County Limerick, Ireland, recalled; ‘It kept claiming victims for months and was so deadly that many bodies turned blue-black.’
- We still don’t know when or where the Spanish Flu actually started
Historians and virologists are still debating where the Spanish Flu came from. There are multiple origin theories, including Kansas in the United States, the Western Front in Northern France, and China. It may have begun as early as 1916, and only reached full strength in the final year of the First World War.
- The spread of the virus was helped by the First World War
The Spanish Flu spread swiftly around the world, aided particularly by the movement of troops. Within a little over a year, it had infected up to 500 million individuals – a third of the world population – and killed up to 100 million of them. India was one of the hardest hit countries, with an estimated 18-20 million deaths.
- It was a mystery illness at the time
Doctors didn’t know what viruses were at this time, as they didn’t have the technology to see something that small. As a result, they didn’t know how to prevent or cure it. Volunteer nurse Dorothea Crewdson recalled, ‘Nothing seems to be of any use in these pneumonia cases. No amount of careful nursing attention can check it and the MOs (Medical Officers) are getting really rather depressed by the hopelessness of the disease, they feel so helpless in the face of its virulence.’
- A range of treatments and cures were attempted
In the face of doctors’ helplessness, ordinary people tried anything they could to treat their friends and family. One of the most popular attempted cures included significant doses of alcohol, especially whisky and brandy. Other attempted cures ranged from camphor and quinine to creosote and strychnine.
- The Spanish Flu was most deadly to young adults
Normal seasonal flu usually most affects the very young and very old. The Spanish Flu was unusual in that the majority of those it killed were young adults, between 20 and 40 years old. A. H. Forbes, from Lancashire, recalled how ‘the physically sound and athletic types in the community readily contracted the infection, whilst the old, the chronic sick and the very young rarely did so’.
- It was a very efficient virus
The average mortality rate was relatively modest, but the virus was incredibly infectious. This allowed the virus to spread very efficiently. The average global mortality rate was between 2-5%. However, some areas suffered very badly. In Western Samoa (now Samoa), up to 90% of the population was infected, and nearly a quarter of the population died.
- We only recently discovered what type of influenza it was
A lengthy search for samples of infected tissue was finally successful in the mid 1990s, when viable tissue was found in an Alaskan victim that had been buried in the permafrost. The virus genome was finally sequenced in 2005. It was an avian-type H1N1 influenza virus, similar to that which caused the swine flu of 2009. Spanish Flu was, however, a far more infectious version.
- We still don’t have a universal flu vaccine.
Influenza viruses mutate very easily, and flu vaccines can only be made to protect against known strains. When a new strain emerges, it is a race against time to create a vaccine that matches this new form. The example of the 1918 Spanish Flu reminds us how vulnerable the global population still is in the face of pandemic influenza.
Written by Hannah Mawdsley, a PhD Candidate with the Imperial War Museum and Queen Mary, University of London, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Contagion is co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary.
- Uncredited – 1918 photograph; photographer uncredited. Via archives.gov at , Public Domain
Navy Medicine from Washington, DC, USA – 12-0137-009 influenza
Item is held by John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland., Public Domain
Otis Historical Archives Nat’l Museum of Health & Medicine