Review: Pandemic 1918 by Catherine Arnold


100 years ago, a Spanish Lady visited Europe, America, Africa and beyond. Seemingly swift, she travelled overnight infecting towns, villages, states and countries with influenza. In her latest work, Pandemic 1918, Catherine Arnold explores the trajectory of the illness, its impact on those who survived and died, and the present race to isolate and analyse the strain that caused the pandemic before another emerges.

At face value, Pandemic 1918, comes across as an exploration of the macabre, yet by the end of the flu’s journey, I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer amount of emotion that seeped from every primary account used. Arnold teased out panic, shock, denial, elation and curiosity from personal accounts, newspaper articles and images, in order to create a human representation of the Spanish flu’s impact on individuals, communities, institutions and ultimately the world. Coupled with statistics and facts relating to the spread of influenza and its impact on population, I felt the true scale of the pandemic and its impact.

I also enjoyed – perhaps a strong word considering the subject matter – the chronological approach to the flu’s story. Whilst in recent years thematic approaches have been utilised, Arnold chose the style that worked for the story she needed to tell. A chronological approach allowed for a clear and methodical look into 1918’s Spanish flu misery. As a reader, I gained so much from following events from beginning to end, something that would have been incredibly tricky to do had the book been organised thematically.  This chronological approach also gives Pandemic 1918 an alternative audience – one that is not dominated by medical historians, healthcare professionals and students. The simplicity of its structure allows absolutely anyone interested in the Spanish flu access to unprecedented information. The need for #accessibleacademics is on the rise, and Catherine Arnold is certainly one such historian.

Similarly, but by no means less importantly, Arnold weaves past experiences of the Spanish flu into present medical research – research that dictates global, medical and humanitarian responses to another flu pandemic. She asks whether the world as it is now would be able to cope with another pandemic of the same or larger scale as in 1918? How far is research going toensure our safe futures? What can we learn from the events of 1918? As much as I would love to answer these questions for you all, I think its best if you go and pick yourselves up a copy of Pandemic 1918, by Catherine Arnold. With more emotion and plot than a Sunday Times Fiction Bestseller, you’ll need to remind yourself regularly that these events did actually happen, and could happen again.


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