2 May Seminar: Socioeconomic mortality differences during the Great Influenza in Spain

For the fifth Pandemics & Society Seminar of our Spring 2024 series, we are pleased to welcome Sergi Basco (Universitat Barcelona). The seminar will be held on Thursday, 2 May at the normal time (1600 CET). More information about our speaker and the presentation is below. You can sign up for email notifications about the seminar series, including the Zoom details, here.

Abstract (and link to paper)

Despite being one of the deadliest viruses in history, there is limited information on the socioeconomic factors that affected mortality rates during the Great Influenza Pandemic. In this study, we use occupation-province level data to investigate the relationship between influenza excess mortality rates and occupation-related status in Spain. We obtain three main results. Firstly, individuals in low-income occupations experienced the highest excess mortality, pointing to a notable income gradient. Secondly, professions that involved more social interaction were associated with a higher excess of mortality, regardless of income. Finally, we observe a substantial rural mortality penalty, even after controlling for income-related occupational groups. Based on this evidence, it seems that the high number of deaths was caused by not self-isolating. Some individuals did not quarantine themselves because they could not afford to miss work. In rural areas, home confinement was likely more limited because their inhabitants did not have immediate access to information about the pandemic or fully understand its impact due to their limited experience handling influenza outbreaks.

About the Speaker

Sergi Basco is Associate Professor of Economics (with tenure) in Universitat Barcelona. He received his PhD in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His work focusses on understanding the effects of globalization and economic crises. His academic work has been published, among others, in Journal of Economic Growth, Journal of International Economics, European Economic Review, Journal of Economic History, Explorations in Economic History, World Development, and Economics and Human Biology. He has published the books Housing Bubbles: Origins and Consequences (Winner of the Catalan Society of Economics Prize 2020) and Pandemics, Economics and Inequality: Lessons from the Spanish Flu (joint with J. Domènech and J. Rosés).

New Guest Researcher: Merle Eisenberg

Merle Eisenberg will be visiting PANSOC between 16th of May and 5th of June. He is an assistant professor of history at Oklahoma State University. He is a historian of late antiquity and the early middle ages and a historian of disease, pandemics, and the environment.

The 1918 Influenza Pandemic is supposedly an outlier compared to most historical pandemics because minority groups may have died at a lower rate in some locations.

In Eisenberg’s own words, “my goal at PANSOC is to work with the world leading experts on the 1918 Influenza and its impact based on race and socio-economic status to understand if and where this was the case and why. To investigate this potentially unique outcome, I have been co-running a project at Oklahoma State University entitled “Looking back and moving forward: Designing for disease mitigation among Black American Communities.” It has gathered data on the neighborhood level impact of the 1918 Influenza on the largest cities in Oklahoma to understand the impact of disease on Black and Indigenous communities. We have death records of almost 700 individuals geolocated to geographical locations, which given that Oklahoma was a racially segregated state in 1918, we can use to map deaths based on race to understand differential mortalities. At PANSOC, I will be expanding my work on the impact of pandemics in Oklahoma as a case study to understand the disparate impact of disease based on race and socio-economic status”.


Merle Eisenberg has co-authored the 2023 book Diseased Cinema: Plagues, Pandemics and Zombies in American Movies, which discusses how the depiction of diseases in movies has changed over the last century and what these changes reveal about American culture. Diseased Cinema analyzes how American movies about infectious diseases have reflected and driven dominant cultural narratives during the past century.

He has several other disease projects underway. The first, “Pandemics and History: the Plague Concept, Disease, and the End of Antiquity,” tracks the development of the Justinianic Plague. It analyzes the plague’s differential impact based on local conditions and investigates how a plague pandemic as a catastrophic myth was created along with its continuing use to the present day, including during Covid. The second with colleagues at Oklahoma State University, “Using socioeconomic, behavioral and environmental data to understand disease dynamics: exploring COVID-19 outcomes in Oklahoma,” received a 3 year National Science Foundation Grant for 2024-2026. As part of this project, he is investigating the impact of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic on populations in Oklahoma to understand the comparative impact of disease on minority populations.

He has also published articles on a variety of topics and disciplinary journals including the American Historical Review, Past & Present, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Early Medieval Europe, Journal of Late Antiquity, and Speculum (forthcoming). He hosts the podcast Infectious Historians on the history of disease, pandemics and medicine, which has run for over 4 years and has now released over 120 episodes.

18 April Seminar: Popular understandings of contagion during the 1918–19 influenza pandemic

For the fourth Pandemics & Society Seminar of our Spring 2024 series, we are pleased to welcome Islay Shelbourne (University of St Andrews). The seminar will be held on Thursday, 18 April at the normal time (1600 CET). You can sign up for email notifications about the seminar series, including the Zoom details, here.


On the 26th of November 1918 in Pasadena, CA, the family of fifteen-year-old Heny Ellicott Magill received a call before breakfast from Henry’s Aunt Helen, summarily uninviting them from Thanksgiving. The day prior, Henry and his mother had argued with Helen over her decision to invite two soldiers from the nearby Arcadia Balloon Camp to their Thanksgiving dinner, with Henry describing her choice as ‘very unpatriotic and inconsiderate of others to have the boys when the Spanish Influenza is so bad, especially when one does not know the boys’. Henry’s mother had commented that if her immediate family were to boycott the event, perhaps Aunt Helen could invite even more soldiers. The following morning Aunt Helen called her bluff. Henry, reporting all of this in the diary he kept for the duration of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, rejected Aunt Helen’s insistence that he and his parents were afraid of the flu, insisting that ’we are not afraid but only like to take precautions, as any other sensible person ought’. These precautions, however, were limited. In his concluding statement on the 26th of November entry, Henry notes that the carpenter had arrived to work on an upstairs room. Henry would interact with the carpenter frequently over the next few weeks.

Henry’s diary entries from throughout the pandemic period demonstrate the complex, multilayered understanding of contagion that dictated responses to influenza in 1918. This paper, as part of a larger PhD project, will utilise a Southern Californian case study to trace these understandings and the impact they had on adherence to, or rejection of, public health measures enacted during the pandemic to prevent the spread of influenza. In noting the influence of existing disease experiences, cultural depictions of infection and sickness, and the slow popular adoption of germ theory in the early 20th century, this paper will provide a nuanced study of everyday citizen’s reactions to public health measures, which in Southern California included public gatherings bans, school closures, quarantines, and mask mandates. Existing literature on the subject focuses largely on the opposition to these measures, and in doing so suggests a binary response in which citizens either completely opposed or otherwise entirely complied with public health ordinances. In utilising Henry’s diary, as well as other personal ephemera from the period, this paper will challenge this interpretation, and show instead how individually generated perceptions of infection risk informed the extent to which people followed official prevention measures or enacted their own forms of contagion defence.  

About the Speaker

Islay is a PhD Environmental History candidate at the University of St Andrews, where her thesis explores how Southern Californian medical and civilian reactions to the 1918-19 influenza pandemic were framed by the state’s unique attitudes towards health and nature. Prior to her PhD, Islay explored issues of medical authority and expertise in both her BA dissertation on veterinary authority in the First World War (QMUL 2019) and MRes thesis analysing medical expertise among British bacteriologists during the 1918-19 pandemic (IHR 2021). Her research employs a combination of medical, environmental, and everyday life history methodologies, the latter inspired by her work on the Everyday Dictatorship Project, also at the University of St Andrews.