skip to main content

Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2018 / February 

Summer seminar to explore the most devastating flu epidemic in recorded history

February 16, 2018

1918 Flu Epidemic
Sailors receive treatment in the influenza ward at Mare Island Naval Base near San Francisco in November 1918. (Courtesy of U.S. Navy Medicine)

A century ago this spring, an unusually deadly influenza virus began circling the world, ultimately killing tens of millions of people.

That devastating outbreak — often called the 1918 influenza pandemic or the Spanish flu epidemic — will be the focus of a Virginia Tech program this summer.

Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and intended for teachers of kindergarten through high school, Flu! The 1918 Spanish Influenza in American and World History will take place July 9–28. The first and third weeks will be held on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, with the second week in Washington, D.C.

“I became interested in the Spanish flu several years ago, and find it a source of remarkable human stories, powerful social forces, and deep medical challenges,” said E. Thomas Ewing, the Virginia Tech history professor who will direct the program. “I’m looking forward to hosting this seminar during the centennial year of this major event in American and world history.”

The seminar will provide teachers with an opportunity to read and discuss the most recent international scholarship on the pandemic; study with scholars, librarians, and archivists during site visits to the Library of Congress, National Archives, and National Library of Medicine; and pursue their own research topics using primary sources from online newspaper databases, archived oral histories, and public health documentation. 

“The importance of studying the history of the Spanish flu epidemic has been underscored this winter, as we’re experiencing the worst outbreak of influenza in almost a decade,” said Ewing. “Analysis of past epidemics is one important way that epidemiologists understand and predict future outbreaks.”

Teachers interested in participating should apply no later than March 1. Those accepted into the three-week program will receive a $2,700 stipend to help cover travel, housing, meals, and basic academic expenses.

“Summer scholars should expect an intellectually challenging experience,” Ewing said. “They’ll have opportunities to pursue their own investigations, discuss findings with leading scholars, and explore the implications of understanding disease in history.”

The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences has a strong record of funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a U.S. government agency that provides grants to support research, education, preservation, and public programs in the humanities.

During the past six years alone, the agency has awarded college faculty members with nearly $1 million for a range of initiatives. Ewing has personally led a number of those programs, including an earlier summer program on the 1918 pandemic; a workshop on images and texts in medical history; research into the Russian flu epidemic of the late 19th century; the development of data-mining methods to track the spread of the Spanish flu; and, most recently, a workshop on viral networks.