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13 November 2018

The centenary of the 1918 flu pandemic

2 Nov Contagion
A dancer in "Contagion", a piece memorialising the pandemic presented at the British Library earlier in November

This November sees not just the centenary of the end of the First World War, but the centenary of the peak of the influenza epidemic that came at its end. The 1918 flu epidemic may have killed fifty million people or more worldwide, over three times the number of people killed in the war. It is thought to have been the third worst disease epidemic ever in Europe, after the fourteenth-century Black Death and the sixth-century Plague of Justinian. 228,000 people died in the UK, with as many as a third of the population infected, although the death rate among those who fell ill was around 2.5%. 1918 was the first year since official records began that deaths in Britain outnumbered births. Epidemiological studies have shown that children whose mothers suffered flu during pregnancy suffered lifelong negative effects on their health and employment histories.

 The flu is still sometimes known as the Spanish Flu, although this is a misnomer that, even at the time, seriously upset the Spaniards. It was associated with Spain because Spain, being neutral in the war, had less media censorship than other European countries, so that the epidemic was more honestly reported. The first unambiguous cases of the pandemic broke out at a US Army base in Kansas in March 1918. The first worldwide wave continued through the spring and summer, but appeared to be no more problematic than ordinary flu. The second, far more lethal wave, occurred in September to December 1918, while a third, less serious wave took place in the first half of 1919.

However, some people have suggested that earlier outbreaks of disease may have been unrecognised early stages of the flu pandemic. Particular suspicion has been cast on an outbreak of a lung disease called at the time "purulent bronchities" which struck the Allied Powers' huge military camp at Etaples in France in early 1917, and a lethal epidemic of lung infection which hit the region of Shansi in China in the winter of 1917-8, although that was believed by local authorities at the time, and many scientists to this day, to have been pneumonic plague.

A major question, especially given the possibility of further flu pandemics in the future, is what made the 1918 virus so lethal. As well as the sheer number of fatalities, it was unusual in killing young and healthy people in large numbers, rather than those who were elderly or frail. Some people have blamed the physical and psychological stresses of the war, and in particular the long-term effects of chemical warfare, for this, but young people also died in countries which were barely affected by the war. It has been suggested that healthy people died because of a phenomenon known as "cytokine storm", where the influenza infection causes the immune system to go into such a state of extreme activity that it itself causes fatal damage to the lungs. This is more likely to happen in people with healthier immune systems, although recent work has suggested that it might be more likely in people with a specific genetic condition in which the first stage of immune response, involving the production of interferon, is unusually weak.

In 2005, the genetic code of the 1918 virus was sequenced from samples taken from the body of a woman buried in Alaska, which had been partly preserved by the cold climate. This indicated that the 1918 virus was a member of the "H1" type of flue virii. That gave rise to a new theory about the higher death rate among young people - for the previous thirty years the majority of influenza circulating worldwide had been of the "H3" type, so older people may have been more likely to have encountered H1 influenza before and had more immunity to it.

Another mystery is why the 1918 pandemic had so little apparent cultural impact at the time. The most famous deaths from the virus were the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, the artist Egon Schiele (along with his wife Edith, who was pregnant with their first child), and John McCrae, author of one of the most famous poems of WWI remembrance, "In Flanders Fields". It also had a wider historical impact. Some military historians argue that the last major German offensive in 1918 failed only because of flu among the soldiers. The British prime minister David Lloyd George nearly died, although this was covered up at the time. The Versailles Treaty might potentially have been less harsh on Germany, reducing the chances of WWII, if the US President, Woodrow Wilson, had not been incapacitated with the flu during the later part of the negotiations. And the death of the leading USSR politician and administrator Yakov Sverdlov has been said to have opened up an opportunity for Josef Stalin to begin his rise to power. Some suggest that the influenza was not seen by people in general as a separate catastrophe from the war, while others have argued that, despite the death toll, it was seen as "just the flu" in an era when death from infectious disease was still much more common than it is today.

Further reading:

Honigsbaum, M. Living with Enza. London: Macmillan: 2009. Shelfmark YC.2009.a.3229 or m08/.36952
Johnson, N. Britain and the 1918-19 influenza pandemic (Routledge studies in the social history of medicine no. 23). Abingdon: Routledge, 2006. Shelfmark YC.2007.a.11206 or 8026.519925 no. 23
Ministry of Health. Report of the pandemic of influenza 1918-19, Reports on public health and medical subjects, 1920, No. 4. Shelfmarks B.S. 17/1, (P) HF 00-E(18), or 7665.590000
Spinney, L. Pale rider. London: Jonathan Cape, 2017. Shelfmark YC.2018.a.7038, or available in British Library Reading Rooms as Legal Deposit e-Book.

Posted by Philip Eagle

12 November 2018

New psychology and nature databases on trial at the BL

Starting today, users in the British Library Reading Rooms can use two new databases from Alexander Street, which are on trial until mid-January 2019. The usage figures in the next two months will determine whether we take the databases permanently.

Psychological Experiments Online has information on some of the most famous (or notorious, given the dark conclusions of some of them) experiments in psychology since 1900, with articles, archive material, sound or video interviews with researchers and participants, and even recordings of the experiments themselves when available.

The BBC Landmark Video Collection has complete episodes of some of the BBC's most significant nature documentary series from the last fifteen years. All of them have full subtitles and searchable transcripts.

Note that to use these databases you will have to use our desk PCs within the Reading Rooms. For the full effect of sound and video material, you will need to use a PC with headphones, although most of those in the Science reading rooms are now fitted with them.

Please can you give any feedback to the enquiry desk staff, or to

Posted by Philip Eagle, Subject Librarian - STM

15 October 2018

Stephen Hawking - the last publications

Hawking Brief Answers
Philip represented the Library at the launch of Professor Stephen Hawking's last, posthumous, popular work, Brief Answers to the Big Questions. The book, which Hawking was writing at the time of his death, includes ten essays summarising his views on the ten questions which he was most frequently asked in interviews or at public events, such as "Is there a god?", "Is time travel possible?", and "Will we survive on Earth?".

Additionally, the launch saw discussion of Hawking's last published scholarly work, a paper dealing with the so-called "Information Paradox of Black Holes", the fact that Hawking's model of black holes, in which all information is lost when matter is sucked into a black hole contradicts a major principle of quantum mechanics, that information about a system cannot be permanently lost. Malcolm Perry and Andrew Strominger, two of Hawking's collaborators on the paper, also took part in the discussion.

A preprint of this paper is currently available on ARXIV at, meaning that both extremes of Hawking's career are free to read online, his PhD thesis being available on the University of Cambridge's Apollo scholarly repository, at

Posted by Philip Eagle, Subject Librarian - STM