A deadly virus arrives in America, carried by travelers from abroad. Health officials scramble to contain the threat, imposing quarantines and other strict measures even as they seek to reassure the public.
It sounds like the Ebola outbreak of 2014. But this scenario played out almost a hundred years ago, during the Spanish-influenza pandemic of 1918. Now a team of humanists and computer scientists has combined early-20th-century primary sources and 21st-century big-data analysis to better understand how America responded to the viral threat in 1918. It’s a study in the possibilities as well as the pitfalls of interdisciplinary work, and a model-in-progress for how data-driven analysis and close reading can enhance each other.
It’s also a historically minded project that speaks to the understandable contemporary obsession with fearsome diseases and how we respond to the threat they pose. That’s one reason the National Endowment for the Humanities helped support the work through its Digging Into Data grant program, administered by the agency’s Office of Digital Humanities.
The Spanish-flu project "really demonstrated how historical research in the humanities could address a very pertinent contemporary challenge in our society—namely, how public-health policies influence the spread of pandemic diseases," says Brett Bobley, director of the digital-humanities office, via email.