ALTOONA, Pa. — John Eicher, assistant professor of modern European history at Penn State Altoona, was recently awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for his work researching the 1918 influenza pandemic in Europe, historically known as the "Spanish flu."
The fellowship is a multi-stage, highly selective process that supports scholars in the humanities via funding and support. According to the NEH website, fellowships are "competitive awards granted to individual scholars pursuing projects that embody exceptional research, rigorous analysis and clear writing. Applications must clearly articulate a project’s value to humanities scholars, general audiences, or both.
Eicher was one of 70 recipients chosen from a pool of over 1,000 applicants for the 2023-24 academic year. In addition, two other Penn State faculty members also received fellowships.
Eicher said he plans to use the funding to continue his current research project: “The Sword Outside, the Plague Within: The 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Europe.” Using more than 1,000 flu survivors' stories from 10 different European countries, the study compares how Europeans understood and interpreted the origin and spread of the pandemic and how they situated the incident within the context of WWI.
According to Eicher, “This fellowship will let me take the work I’ve been doing with my student researchers and put it to paper as a book.”
Eicher’s research did not originally begin with the 1918 pandemic in Europe, he said. His research process began in 2018 when he visited Berlin, Germany, intending to work on a book project on German immigration to Texas in the 1840s. However, upon reading archives about immigrants, Eicher said he faced a problem: He could not read old German script.
“I was pretty demoralized when faced with this immediate and difficult limitation,” Eicher shared. Given this barrier, continuing his research on that topic seemed impossible, he added — but he did not stop there.
When Eicher returned home from the archive, an advertisement for a game called “Plague Inc.” caught his eye. It just so happened that it was the centennial of the 1918 influenza pandemic, and something clicked, he said. The realization sparked a new point of interest for Eicher and brought him back to the archive the next day, where he discovered two large volumes of primary documents, collected by the German government, that had been practically overlooked in the last 15 years, with only three people having checked them out in all that time. Eicher said he saw this as an opportunity to redirect his research toward an unexplored topic.
This fellowship will let me take the work I’ve been doing with my student researchers and put it to paper as a book.
—John Eicher , assistant professor of modern European history at Penn State Altoona
Fast forward to 2019. Eicher heard that there was a large collection of primary documents about the flu in London and decided to take a visit. There, he found 2,700 documents consisting of interview transcripts and personal letters from flu survivors in nearly 20 countries. Only a few historians had used certain letters previously, but never the full collection.
“It was a treasure trove,” Eicher said.
Eicher photographed these memory documents, and through the efforts of student workers at Penn State Altoona and the University of Freiburg, he entered them into a searchable database. The student researchers assisted Eicher with “tagging” the memories, which lets him filter different types of letters according to their authors’ characteristics and condition during their illnesses. Working together, they created over 300 single-spaced pages of tags.
Then, in 2020-21, Eicher held a yearlong fellowship at the University of Freiburg, where he had the opportunity to work as a Marie Curie Junior Fellow and visited roughly 15 physical archives in Switzerland, Germany and France.
This research allowed me to take a ‘snapshot’ of responses to the flu in three neighboring countries," said Eicher. "The great thing about the region is that France was one of the Allies in WWI, Germany was a central power and Switzerland was neutral, which adds a level of complexity to the analysis.”
In the summer of 2023, Eicher will be returning to Europe, where he will be a Simona Veil Fellow at the University of Munich. With the support of Penn State Global, he will visit Hanover to give a lecture on his research. For more information on Eicher’s work, visit his website.