COVID-19: Director of 1918 Influenza Exhibit Talks Coronavirus

The Mütter Museum, the site of the "Spit Spreads Death" exhibit. Mütter Museum/Courtesy

In late 2019, a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic would shut down much of Philadelphia, the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia opened its new long-term exhibit, Spit Spreads Death, examining another pandemic that gripped the city a century prior: the 1918 Influenza, or Spanish Flu.

Robert Hicks, the museum’s now-former director and current William Maul Measey Chair for the History of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania who originally spearheaded the exhibition, could not have known in December how relevant the exhibit would become only a few months later, even as it had to be temporarily closed to the public under Gov. Wolf’s lockdown orders.

He spoke on the phone about what it’s like to see a major pandemic firsthand after spending years studying one from history, how the pandemics compare, and what lessons there are to learn from them.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Could you talk a little bit about how the exhibit came together?

We had very successfully gone after some grant money for a long-term exhibit called Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits about the medical side of the Civil War. And in thinking about what ought to follow that, I realized we have the 100-year anniversary of the 1918 flu coming up. But also, there’s so much information at any given moment in the press about some disease somewhere surfacing. Of course, I didn’t anticipate we’d have coronavirus right away, but I figured if the exhibit were up for about five years, people coming to see it would have in their mind something they’d seen on the news about some disease outbreak somewhere. And as bad luck would have it, we opened Spit Spreads Death in October and now here we are!

So, having done all that work, a few months later you get the biggest pandemic [since 1918]. What sort of thoughts have been going through your head since then?

So, it’s been a five-year project to get to this thing. We began following a lot of reporting in both journalism and in the scientific periodicals that were prognosticating that there is another epidemic coming, and there’s a high likelihood that it’s going to be a respiratory virus, possibly a flu or a variant of the flu. When the coronavirus reports started to emerge, it became clear that none of us were surprised. Even coronavirus itself, there are scientists who are aware of this and have been aware for years predicting this thing was likely to burst onto the scene in a big way, it’s so highly infectious. There are certainly some comparisons with 1918. In both cases, there was no vaccine.

In 1918, the pandemic hit Philadelphia relatively hard, eventually killing some 12,000 people. But so far with the Coronavirus pandemic, Philadelphia has done relatively well. Of course, they’re two different diseases. But what are some human factors that might explain the difference?

Oh, boy. That’s a big question. Well, World War I was going on at the time, so the world political environment was extremely important. Just as disease shapes human populations, human populations shape diseases. There was no social distancing in 1918. Although the public officials said that if you felt sick you should stay home, people were not encouraged to stay away from work because, hey, you’ve got to go to work to support the war effort. There wasn’t any national leadership, although people could say that about now, too. President Wilson never once made a public comment about the flu because he didn’t want to distract from the war effort. All eyes were on the war effort.

On the other hand, you did not have the kind of protests then that you have now, to keep things open and to encourage people to congregate in bars again and all that stuff. If that had happened in 1918, the police would have shown up, closed it down, and arrested everybody right away, and there wouldn’t have been any discussion about that.

With the experience of both 1918 and 2020 in mind, is there anything you would hope to see change in how leaders address pandemics?

Well, it’s not going to be a unique opinion, but we’ve built something since 1918 that’s been kind of ignored. We have early warning systems in place. The Center for Disease Control leaps on top of things and really does an amazing job with getting to grips with what’s going on, getting the best science done. Right now, of course, we’re seeing the CDC largely silent and we’re seeing other federal agencies that might have anything to do with this effectively silenced because it’s a bad news story. And with an election coming up, you know where the political energy is going to go.

I would say that we have to pay attention to scientific prognostications because they’re usually right. And the science has been saying for years we were going to get another respiratory-illness pandemic. I think the other thing we need is an awareness that we may have to limit our own freedom of movement in significant ways and change some of our habits and patterns of living, maybe for a very long time, when something like this is happening. I think that mindset is something we need to develop, as well as respect for science.

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