Philly Museum Explores 1918 Flu Pandemic in Eerily Timed Exhibit

The Mütter Museum
The Mütter Museum

When Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum debuted its latest exhibit last October, the organizers had no idea how eerie the timing would be. Named after the public service announcements plastered around the city, Spit Spreads Death is a deep dive into the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. Colloquially known as the Spanish flu, it was the worst pandemic in U.S. history, killing 675,000 Americans and more than 5 million people worldwide.

While the museum is closed, you can still see portions online, including interactive animations of the virus’ spread, neighborhood demographic maps, and an online exhibit on the history of vaccines. The plan is to keep the exhibit open until 2024. We talked to museum manager Nancy Hill about what looking back to 1918 can tell us about the coronavirus pandemic today.

Looking back, the timing of Spit Spreads Death seems eerily prescient. 
We knew that there would be a public health tie-in that was evergreen, but we were just as surprised as anyone when the virus started to spread in the US. When you first enter the exhibit, we put forth questions like, “What is your responsibility to the people around you to help support public health?” We’re getting a real crash course in that right now.

What are some of the similarities you’ve seen between how the 1918 flu pandemic unfolded and the coronavirus pandemic today?
When we first started hearing about COVID-19 in China and parts of East Asia, a lot of Lunar New Year parades were canceled. With the Liberty Loan Parade being a very integral part of the Philadelphia story, we were like “Oh, okay, good.” And then St. Patrick’s Day was coming around, and initially the city didn’t cancel it. And we were like, “This is what happened before, and Philadelphia was ground zero.” Thankfully, the next day they canceled it. You feel guilty being the harbinger of doom and trying to get people to listen to something that feels pretty distant, but thankfully, people took that seriously.

We’ve also seen a lot of volunteerism in response to both pandemics. In 1918, where city services and infrastructure failed, citizens stepped in and set up volunteer-run ambulances and burial services. Today, there’s a Facebook group in Philadelphia for people sewing face masks and donating them to hospitals. We’ve got people buying meals from local businesses to be delivered to hospital staff. People with gaming PCs can donate their computer’s processing power to protein folding simulations that are looking for weaknesses in the virus that can be used to develop a vaccine or cure. Technology has changed the way we volunteer, but it’s a silver lining to look at all the things people are doing to help each other.

What about the differences? Obviously we have a lot more resources and knowledge to fight a viral pandemic than people did a century ago.
People in 1918 would have been extremely jealous of the knowledge we have today. There was basically no such thing as PPE. Scientists were up on germ theory, but they didn’t have a microscope strong enough to distinguish between a bacteria and a virus. There was no flu vaccine until 1945, and there weren’t antibiotics to fight secondary infections.

But medicine was much more of a public utility then than it is now. Today we’re navigating a for-profit healthcare system, and we’re seeing its flaws. There’s an empty hospital in Philadelphia with space for 500 beds, and the public can’t use it because it's owned by a private real estate investor. That kind of divestment of what I think should be public resources out of public accessibility is a problem that wasn't faced in 1918. There were emergency hospitals set up all over the city.

How information about the 1918 pandemic was distributed was also very different. There were government censors on the press because of the first World War, so this was never front page news -- neither side of the conflict wanted the other to know that they were compromised. Today, you look at CNN and it’s plastered everywhere.

What are some of the lessons we can learn about the coronavirus crisis through the lens of 1918 pandemic? 
Trusting science and investing in science is the biggest lesson, and not taking that for granted is really important. All you can do is invest in science and hope to be prepared and do your best for yourself and the people around you.

Pandemics and viral threats are something that have been part of the human experience for millennia. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be upsetting, but this is part of being human. Hopefully, people will come back to a greater collective awareness of the role that they have in culture and society.

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Alexandra Jones is a writer based in Philadelphia covering food, travel, gardening, agriculture, and sustainability. Follow her on Instagram at @arockjonestown.