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December 12, 2018

Georgetown Symposium On 1918 Flu Brings Together Multidisciplinary Perspectives

On October 17, 2018, Georgetown welcomed scholars from different disciplines for a symposium on the causes and lessons of the Spanish Flu of 1918. As a worldwide pandemic at a crucial point in history, the topic provided a fruitful opportunity to explore the cross-section of science, global history, and public health.

Nurses hold a stretcher with a 1918 influenza victim
Nurses hold a stretcher with a 1918 influenza victim

The event was part of Georgetown's Great Influenza Centenary Project, which analyzes and reflects on the lessons of the plague for the world and Georgetown students. Georgetown history professor Tim Newfield hosted the event, which featured scholars Jessica Belser, Matthew Heaton, Mark Humphries, Laura Spinney, and Cecile Viboud. With backgrounds in microbiology, history, epidemiology, and journalism, the speakers provided a wide variety of perspectives and insights into the effects and causes of the so-called Spanish Flu.

Speakers at the event covered a range of topics, and illustrated how different academic perspectives can further understanding of the issue. Humanistic perspectives served to illuminate the context of the pathogen’s emergence and diffusion, discussing both the global effects it had and its local impacts in colonial Africa as well as the social and hygienic conditions that drove the disease’s spread in urban areas. Scientific perspectives helped to show what made that particular flu so unique, at the microscopic level, and, on a statistical level, where and when the disease spread over the globe. Newfield said:

"Pandemics are complex problems that require careful multidisciplinary collaboration."

"This event was designed as a first step towards the sort of cross-discipline teamwork that is all too rare in historical epidemiology," Newfield added. "By coming together, we stand a better chance at answering basic questions about the 1917-19 pandemic that continues to elude us, like where did the flu emerge, how many died, what co-morbidities proved most lethal, and what factors account for the tremendous differences in mortality and morbidity between and within affected regions.”

The event was sponsored by Georgetown’s Global Health Initiative, Environment Initiative, and University Medical Center, and was partially funded through a GHI Great Influenza Centenary Project grant.

Speakers included:

Tim Newfield is an assistant professor in the departments of History and Biology at Georgetown University.

Laura Spinney is a writer and science journalist based in Paris.

Cecile Viboud is an epidemiologist at the NIH’s Fogarty International Center.

Mark Humphries is an associate professor, Dunkley Chair in War and the Canadian Experience, and director of the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies  at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Matthew Heaton is an associate professor of African history at Virginia Tech.

Jessica Belser is a microbiologist in the Flu Division at the Center for Disease Control.

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