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Written By

Bianca de Loryn


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

20 May 2020

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The biggest pandemic in recent history

The Spanish Flu (1918-1920) was the biggest pandemic in recent history. But still, most of us have forgotten it.

For his PhD in history, Dr Patrick Hodgson retraced what happened in Queensland and why we were made to forget.

Patrick Hodgson told the ABC’s The Drum in a recent interview that a pandemic on the scale we are having right now is not new and certainly not unprecedented. Instead, we have merely forgotten about it.

“What’s happening today echoes what happened one hundred years ago,” Patrick says. “Especially when hearing the Premier of Queensland saying we need to create a ‘care army’. It’s just like opening a door, stepping back in time.”

The Spanish Flu was probably the worst pandemic in modern history, and today experts are still not sure how many people died. Some say the influenza virus claimed 50 million lives, but more recent estimates go more towards 100 million.

“Even in Australia, the official count was thirteen thousand,” Patrick says. But from his own research, he says it was probably closer to twenty thousand deaths. “Doctors and health authorities, if not themselves sick or dying, were simply too overwhelmed with the sheer number of cases to keep accurate records,” Patrick says.

Quarantine and isolation during the Spanish Flu in Queensland

If one compares the time between 1918 and 1920 with today, Patrick sees many similarities.

Politicians compared the Spanish flu to a war, and even public health responses were similar in 1919.

“There was closing of theatres, churches, schools. There was quarantine, there was isolation,” Patrick explains.

Obedient women pressured to risk their lives

But times were different then, especially when it came to the role of women in Australian society.

After World War I was fought and won, Australia was calling on women to be “unselfish” and “obedient” and risk their lives as volunteers, as the Brisbane Courier wrote on 29 January 1919.

Thousands of women, who had little or no experience in nursing, were pressured into volunteering because it was “a woman’s patriotic duty to put her own life at risk for the good of the state,” writes Patrick in his PhD thesis.

In Queensland, the mostly female volunteers would generally work in three groups, “one to prepare the food, one to go patrolling and one to do nursing,” says Patrick.  Even though food preparation and patrolling was not perceived as dangerous, it was an entirely different case for the mostly untrained, mostly female volunteers to go into private homes to care for the thousands of sick and dying people.

Dr Pat Hodgson
Newspaper cartoon about the Spanish Flu entering Queensland

Forgotten heroes

Already during the influenza pandemic, Australians were making efforts to erase the Spanish Flu from public memory.

In newspaper memorials, deceased World War I veterans were celebrated as war heroes, whereas influenza victims merely received brief notices that often left out the cause of their suffering.

Forgetting the influenza pandemic also stemmed from the Australian government wanting to encourage a certain self-image of Australia. While the government had put a major effort into turning the defeat at Gallipoli into something of a victory, “the pandemic hasn’t had that type of promotion,” Patrick says. Young, white males who died in Gallipoli were looked upon as heroes and martyrs, whereas the ultimate sacrifice of the women and men who died fighting the Spanish Flu was taken for granted as a service to the state.

Schools teach about wars, not pandemics

Patrick says that historians are also responsible for not protecting the public memory.

“The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1920 is rarely mentioned in public histories and is not part of the history syllabus in Queensland schools.” However, the Spanish Flu has become a topic in JCU History courses since Patrick started researching for his PhD in 2010.

Find out more about the Spanish Flu in Queensland

Dr Patrick Hodgson’s PhD thesis “Flu, Society and the State: The Political, Social and Economic Implications of the 1918-1920 Influenza Pandemic in Queensland” is available for download from the JCU Research Online page.

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