Monuments to Catastrophe: the Spanish flu pandemic

Perhaps the greatest disaster to ever befall humanity, the pandemic of 1918 is strangely overlooked. Laura Spinney examines our shared memory of that and earlier tragedies.  

The history of humanity is punctuated with purges. Large numbers of people have died in short periods of time as a result of wars, disease and natural disasters. Once these have passed, it falls to the survivors to count the dead. This is never easy, but it is harder for some kinds of disaster than for others. It may be hardest of all for a pandemic, as Ole Benedictow acknowledged in his 2005 article, The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever.

Natural disasters tend to have a geographical focus and, as in most wars in history, the bulk of the action takes place in circumscribed ‘theatres’. By contrast, in a pandemic – an epidemic that encompasses several countries or continents – those who die do so over a large area, often before their disease has been diagnosed and sometimes even before their lives have been recorded. This was especially true before the late 19th century, when germ theory became widely accepted and epidemiology was established as a science.

The Black Death was a pandemic of bubonic plague and its variant, pneumonic plague, that washed over Europe and Asia in the mid-14th century. For a long time it was believed to have wiped out around 30 per cent of Europe’s population, but based on new information about mortality rates among ‘ordinary people’, Benedictow concluded that this number should be doubled. Of Europe’s estimated 80 million inhabitants at the time, 50 million must have died. 

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