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Med Hist. 2013 Apr;57(2):165-85. doi: 10.1017/mdh.2012.101.

Regulating the 1918-19 pandemic: flu, stoicism and the Northcliffe press.

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Institute and Museum of Medical History, Hirschengraben 82, 8001 Zürich, Switzerland.


Social historians have argued that the reason the 1918–19 ‘Spanish’ influenza left so few traces in public memory is that it was ‘overshadowed’ by the First World War, hence its historiographical characterisation as the ‘forgotten’ pandemic. This paper argues that such an approach tends to overlook the crucial role played by wartime propaganda. Instead, I put emotion words, emotives and metaphors at the heart of my analysis in an attempt to understand the interplay between propaganda and biopolitical discourses that aimed to regulate civilian responses to the pandemic. Drawing on the letters of Wilfred Owen, the diaries of the cultural historian Caroline Playne and the reporting in the Northcliffe press, I argue that the stoicism exhibited by Owen and amplified in the columns of The Times and the Daily Mail is best viewed as a performance, an emotional style that reflected the politicisation of ‘dread’ in war as an emotion with the potential to undermine civilian morale. This was especially the case during the final year of the conflict when war-weariness set in, leading to the stricter policing of negative emotions. As a protean disease that could present as alternately benign and plague-like, the Spanish flu both drew on these discourses and subverted them, disrupting medical efforts to use the dread of foreign pathogens as an instrument of biopower. The result was that, as dread increasingly became attached to influenza, it destabilised medical attempts to regulate the civilian response to the pandemic, undermining Owen’s and the Northcliffe press’s emotives of stoicism.

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