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New Exhibit Explores 1918 Spanish Flu And What It Can Teach Us About Future Pandemics

U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph
The Liberty Loan Parade at Philadelphia, Penn., Sept. 28, 1918. This parade, with its associated dense gatherings of people, contributed significantly to the massive outbreak of influenza which struck Philadelphia a few days later.

Many of us have probably never lived through something like a viral pandemic.

But your grandparents might have.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, the last time America faced something like what we’re living through now was in 1918 during the Spanish flu. As many as one-third of the world contracted the virus — 50 million people died.

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Philadelphia was one of the worst-hit cities in America because they didn’t follow the kind of social distancing measures recommended both then and now.

That’s why, even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted something like it could come back to America a couple of years ago, the Philadelphia College of Physicians planned an exhibit to look back at the 1918 Spanish flu.

Nancy Hill is the manager of the Mutter Museum, which is run by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The exhibit, with materials online, is called "Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19."

"This isn't the apocalypse, [viral pandemics] are something that have affected humanity for millennia and it will continue to affect us." - Nancy Hill

The exhibit looks at how the pandemic affected each neighborhood of Philadelphia, how the disease spread through the city, and what can be learned for future – or current pandemics. 

"We knew at any point, there would be something public health-related in the news. Thinking it might be Ebola, or there are some antibiotic resistance syphilis strains here in Philadelphia. We ended up being surprised that there was another major viral epidemic. We probably shouldn't have been because the CDC and WHO have been warning us that we're due for one, but we've all been surprised that there's a lot to take from the 1918 experience," says Hill. 

The biggest takeaway from 1918: this is not the end of the world, she says. While Hill doesn't want to trivialize the real pain that the coronavirus is causing and will continue to cause, she wants us to understand that this has happened before. 

"This isn't the apocalypse, [viral pandemics] are something that have affected humanity for millennia and it will continue to affect us. It's something we have lived through before and we will live through it this time," says Hill

She says the best thing to do is "keep calm and do your part to keep this from spreading."

During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.


From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.