People wait in line to get flu masks to avoid the spread of Spanish influenza on Montgomery Street in San Francisco in 1918

Letters from a Pandemic

Assistant Professor of History John Eicher studies survivors of the 1918 pandemic, exploring how they felt about what happened to them.
By: Therese Boyd

In 1918 a strain of H1N1 virus spread across the globe, assisted by humans' movements in World War I. For those who fell ill, there was no cure, only care for fevers and quarantine to protect others. For those who managed to avoid it, there was no vaccine, only masks and public hygiene methods. Millions died. Millions more lived through those terrible days. Penn State Altoona's Assistant Professor of History John Eicher has embarked on a research project to study those survivors of the 1918 pandemic, to explore how they felt about what happened to them.

John Eicher

John E. Eicher, Ph.D.

Credit: Penn State

Eicher's approach involves letters collected for another book, Richard Collier's The Plague of the Spanish Lady (1974). "Collier's interest was in writing a fast-paced history of the Spanish flu based on survivors' memories," Eicher says. In the early 1970s, "he hired several research assistants to go across Western Europe during the Cold War, to 10 different countries and place ads in local newspapers and solicit memories from average people." The research method produced a primary source gold mine: "He was able to gather nearly 1,000 memories/letters. Some are handwritten, and others are interview transcripts. The researchers then went out and interviewed people."

Eicher found Collier's book "very interesting," but he believes the story is not yet complete: "There is a lot more research potential in those letters." For his own book, tentatively titled The Sword Outside, the Plague Within: A Cultural History of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Europe, Eicher was planning to focus on how religious people in particular dealt with the flu, but as so often happens in research, his subject "shifted to how average people in general dealt with the Spanish flu in Europe." He wants to look for both similarities and differences among the letter writers, for example, "What do urban populations have in common? Do rural people in France have anything in common with rural people in Germany?"

He cites a difference in treatment approaches. "In France, they used cupping, but in Germany and Spain, they didn't." Eicher is not interested in passing judgment on any medical procedures that might have been used. "I don't want to be dismissive of the things people think helped them. This is a time before they knew how viruses worked."

Humans in a pandemic is a very contemporary topic, but Eicher doesn't want to place too much emphasis on the experiences of 1918 vs. 2020. "I want to know what people thought more than recommendations for what we should do now," he says. But he does see common themes: "I've read several recent articles concerning government-mandated masks in 1918, but it comes down to the size of government. In Europe and the United States, there weren't national mandates." One detail he finds "striking—a lot of decisions were left up to local governments. A lot of it came down to states. Businesses made their own decisions."

While Eicher wants to avoid comparisons with today, sometimes they are impossible to ignore. He was surprised to see that “based on the German letters, none of my letter writers blame the German government. The early 1970s was a very political moment in Germany: Willie Brandt had received a vote of no confidence, there was violence at the Munich Olympics, and ongoing domestic terrorism. I would have imagined politics to be at the forefront of their minds, but the pandemic wasn’t politicized in their memories.” He notes that he needs to keep in mind that most of the writers were in their teens or twenties during the pandemic: “A lot of them were soldiers, doctors, nurses; they would be aware of what happened.”

As he continues his research, Eicher is spending the 2020-21 academic year at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies as a Marie S. Curie Junior Fellow; he plans visits to archives in Germany and Switzerland. He has also hired six research assistants, five at Penn State Altoona and one in Germany, funded by student research grants. Eicher describes their work: "They go through the letters and create these really long documents with basic information about the person and then data tags, such as 'past location, London, England. Past age 17, past occupation, librarian ...' Every letter yields about 10 to 40 tags."

The process might sound tedious, but it pays off for Eicher's work. "I have research software that lets me dump those tags into a field, which automatically organizes them. I can then go to the database to see, for example, how many drank alcohol as a prescription or how many drank as a home remedy. I can also see how many were soldiers or how many worked in construction. With really good solid data about these people, I can use their individual stories to support broad generalizations.” More details on Eicher's research, including a video, can be found on his website.

Brothers Nathan (mechanical and nuclear engineering major) and Ethan (mechanical engineering major) Kibbe, now both juniors at University Park, began working as research assistants for Eicher last fall. Nathan notes that the research took on a whole new relevance with the pandemic: “My view of the project has changed. It’s interesting how similar some things are.” The majority of the letters he has read come from England—”lots of soldiers, lots of students.” What made an impression on him is how the flu “would come on very suddenly. Someone could be on a bus and get sick.”

The letters Ethan has studied were from Germany. He found it interesting that survivors mentioned that the flu appeared to be “selective. A lot of people said it was attacking young women to ‘even things out’ after [all the deaths in] World War I, that it was ‘God’s will.’” He also notes that alcohol was the medicine of choice: “they’d give you a bottle of alcohol. All of them used alcohol as their main remedy, a ‘hot toddy.’”

Based on their experience as researchers, and despite both being engineering majors, the brothers would recommend the work to other students. “History research is very interesting,” says Ethan. “You get a lot of knowledge out of it. It’s not reading a history book. It’s actually reading history, what they personally thought and what they personally went through.”

Pandemics happened before 1918 and certainly after, affecting people of all ages and walks of life. In the future, when historians study our reactions to the 2020 pandemic—and most certainly compare them to 1918—research such as Eicher’s will help give them a clearer, closer look at humans in a health crisis.