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March 20, 2018

GHI Sponsors Great Influenza Centenary Project

Launched in recognition of the one-hundredth anniversary of the 1918 pandemic (the so-called “Spanish Flu”), Georgetown’s Great Influenza Centenary Project catalyzes university-wide reflection on the historic influenza and serves as a platform for exploring the effects of a future public health emergency.

Housed under the Global Health Initiative (GHI), the centenary project engages a wide variety of disciplines and spans Georgetown’s campuses, schools, and departments to reflect on last century’s catastrophic events and to inform current challenges in responding to pandemic threats.

Interdisciplinary Exploration

Edward Healton, executive vice president for health sciences and executive dean of the School of Medicine, explained the centenary project promotes multifaceted reflection on the 1918 flu by providing small grants to Georgetown faculty and students who wish to explore the pandemic from one or more disciplinary perspectives, or consider the effects of a future pandemic when it occurs.

Healton explained the GHI and the centenary project “connect [Georgetown] faculty activities across the university, developing the power and potential of a deeply interwoven faculty, not limited by campus boundaries.”

David Edelstein, vice dean of faculty of the Georgetown College and associate professor in the Walsh School of Foreign Service and Department of Government, noted how Georgetown is uniquely equipped to tackle this type of challenge.

“Disciplines such as history, chemistry, and economics explain part of the story of the Spanish flu; viewed together, they are greater than the sum of their parts,” said Edelstein. “We are at our best when we recognize the inherently interdisciplinary nature of the challenges we face.”

Launch of the Centenary Project

The centenary project was officially launched on March 12, at a dinner event sponsored by the GHI and hosted by Robert Groves, provost and executive vice president of the main campus.

Bruce Gellin, president of global immunization at the Sabin Vaccine Institute and adjunct professor at Georgetown’s School of Medicine, offered an overview the 1918 influenza and explained that, in many ways, the annual flu season serves as a drill for a widespread pandemic. Rebecca Katz, co-director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security, outlined the work of the center and accentuated the importance of pandemic preparedness. Tim Newfield, assistant professor in the Departments of History and Biology, emphasized that complex events, such as pandemics, require multidisciplinary responses. Even recent disease catastrophes, such as the rise of Ebola in West Africa, have suffered from narrow approaches.

“Multiple aspects of the 1918 influenza remain poorly understood,” explained Newfield. “Our appreciation of its exceptional mortality, its global reach, its paths of dissemination, and its emergence are incomplete. Scholars of diverse training must collaborate if we are to understand this historic pandemic…and take lessons from its devastation.”

To further illustrate the effects of the 1918 pandemic on Georgetown’s campus, the event included a display of archived materials, such as a 1918 Law School yearbook, medical records of faculty and students with the Spanish flu, and journal entries recounting campus life during the early twentieth-century flu season.

Service to the World

The centenary project builds on Georgetown’s Catholic and Jesuit identity and is aligned with the mission of the GHI, which seeks to create concrete solutions to health challenges facing families and communities throughout the world.

Groves described the launch of the centenary project as a moment to reflect on a human event of disastrous proportions, and to contemplate how to work together in the face of a future threat.

“We at Georgetown aspire to contribute to the solutions of unsolved world problems,” said Groves. “This aspiration is in our roots. It follows the Jesuit tradition of going to the edges; to work on the hardest, the knottiest problems.”