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Epidemic Encounters: Influenza, Society, and Culture in Canada, 1918-20

By Esyllt W. Jones, editor

Review By Megan Davies

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 180 Winter 2013-2014  | p. 183-184

Epidemics call out the ambulance-chaser in all of us, and for health historians, there is none more attention-grabbing than the 1918-20 influenza pandemic, mistakenly dubbed the “Spanish Flu,” the only infectious disease to stop the Stanley Cup playoffs.

In my second year introductory course on health, I use epidemics as a topic for my first lecture, tracing a broad historical brush from the Black Death to SARS. But it is the 1918-20 flu that anchors the class. Why is this? Because the disease illustrates the multiple facets of global pandemics that are so comprehensively covered in this fine volume: the role of the state, the professional picture, civic engagement with disease, the impact on families, the way in which infectious illness intersects with place, class, ethnicity, and gender, and the emotional terrain of sudden, unexpected death. The introduction, written by editors Magda Fahrni and Esyllt Jones, is a wonderfully comprehensive and thoughtful overview of the topic, set in national and global contexts. The chapter authors — historians, health geographers, and medical anthropologists — provide a range of interpretations and perspectives on the pandemic. Epidemic Encounters is thus a welcome Canadian contribution to a burgeoning international scholarship on the 1918-20 influenza epidemic.

Some of the topics covered in this wide-ranging collection cover aspects of the epidemic familiar to most Canadian health historians: the shortages of hospital space and professional nursing care, the closure of churches and movie theatres, and the use of home folk remedies in the face of limited medical responses. But importantly, Epidemic Encounters also provides careful micro-histories that debunk accepted ideas about the pandemic as a “democratic” illness. D. Ann Herring and Ellen Korol’s meticulous mapping of the epidemic’s path through the city of Hamilton, for example, demonstrates the unequal social and economic impact of the opportunistic disease. Similarly, Karen Slonim employs the concept of syndemics to demonstrate how the legacies of colonialism facilitated the rapid and devastating spread of the flu through vulnerable Aboriginal populations. Epidemic disease, like serious accidents, leaves the survivors trying to find sense in trauma and tragedy. This work of  “making meaning” of the train wreck of illness — a process poorly understood by most who formulate health care delivery — is the focus of chapters by Esyllt Jones and Mary-Ellen Kelm. Sources for the study of the influenza epidemic as a cultural event will never be adequate to the task at hand, but the effort to interrogate the void between public forgetting and private grief is to be commended.

Do I recommend that BC Studies readers pick up this book? I think they should, but not because of the British Columbian content. Rather, I follow medical historian Charles Rosenberg’s argument that epidemics reveal the fault lines of a society. I am reminded here of a recent newspaper article detailing how warfare in Mali is undermining efforts to thwart the spread of Guinea worm disease, a terrible parasitic infection. We should be following such stories and thinking about them in context. In this fashion, the chapters in Epidemic Encounters serve as a useful set of cautionary tales in the age of SARS, Avian Flu, political unrest, and growing global and domestic inequality.

Epidemic Encounters: Influenza, Society, and Culture in Canada, 1918-20
Magda Fahrni and Esyllt W. Jones, eds. 
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012. 204 pp, $34.95 paper