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.  

New paper: SES is associated with a higher confidence in flu vaccination

We are proud to announce yet another publication from the project PANRISK: Socioeconomic risk groups, vaccination and pandemic influenza (Research Council of Norway grant agreement No 302336)

The paper is joint for with colleagues from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. You can read the paper here:

Higher educational attainment associated with higher confidence in influenza vaccination in Norway – ScienceDirect

Joint paper with Danish colleagues

We are happy to see that collaboration with PANSOC and PandemicX has led to a new paper: Full article: The 1919–21 influenza pandemic in Greenland (tandfonline.com). This paper is also part of the CAS project on Pandemics and Indigenous Peoples.


In Alaska, the 1918–20 influenza pandemic was devastating, with mortality rates up to 90% of the population, while in other arctic regions in northern Sweden and Norway mortality was considerably lower. We investigated the timing and age-patterns in excess mortality in Greenland during the period 1918–21 and compare these to other epidemics and the 1889–92 pandemic. We accessed the Greenlandic National Archives and transcribed all deaths from 1880 to 1921 by age, geography, and cause of death. We estimated monthly excess mortality and studied the spatial-temporal patterns of the pandemics and compared them to other mortality crises in the 40-year period. The 1918–21 influenza pandemic arrived in Greenland in the summer of 1919, one year delayed due to ship traffic interruptions during the winter months. We found that 5.2% of the Greenland population died of the pandemic with substantial variability between counties (range, 0.1% to 11%). We did not see the typical pandemic age-pattern of high young-adult mortality, possibly due to high baseline mortality in this age-group or remoteness. However, despite substantial mortality, the mortality impact was not standing out relative to other mortality crises, or of similar devastation reported in Alaskan populations.

7 March 2024 Seminar: The Economic Impact of the Black Death in England, 1350 to 1400

For the third Pandemics & Society Seminar of our Spring 2024 series, we are pleased to welcome Professor Mark Bailey (University of East Anglia). The seminar will be held on Thursday, 7 March at the normal time (1600 CET). You can sign up for email notifications about the seminar series, including the Zoom details, here.


The Black Death of 1348–9 halved the population of Europe, and the English sources provide unparalleled insights into the economic consequences of this catastrophe.  Recent research and re-readings of older research underline the profound importance of the Black Death in causing long-term shifts in wealth distribution, patterns of consumption and production, the decline of serfdom, and the spread of contractual relations in the land and labour markets.

About the Speaker

Mark Bailey is Professor of Later Medieval History at the University of East Anglia, UK.  In 2019 he delivered the Ford Lectures at Oxford University, subsequently published as After the Black Death. Economy, society and the law in fourteenth-century England (Oxford University Press, 2021).

29 February 2024 Seminar: Using cellular-scale viral and immunological models to inform macro-scale public health decision making

For the second Pandemics & Society Seminar of our Spring 2024 series, we are pleased to welcome Thomas Finnie (UK Health Security Agency). The seminar will be held on Thursday, 29 February 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.


All viral pathogens mutate, sometimes that mutation has profound effects on how the pathogen affects the human population (for example by evading the human immune system), often it does not. In this talk I will explore how we have begun to bring together the multiple scales of understanding required to turn raw genomic, or virological information into modelling the effects on a population so that public health actions may be taken.

About the Speaker

Thomas Finnie is Head of Modelling and Data-Science for Emergency Preparedness, Resilience, and Response at the UK Health Security Agency. He worked for more than a decade as a modeller at the UKHSA’s predecessor organization, Public Health England, and has a PhD in Numerical Ecology from Imperial College London.