Exhibition: Nursing during history’s deadliest pandemic

New exhibition marks 100 years since the deadliest pandemic in human history known as Spanish Flu

 One hundred years ago, just as World War I was drawing to a close, an invisible killer more deadly than the war itself, swiftly swept across the globe, infecting half a billion people worldwide and killing 50-100 million, including 250,000 Britons. 

A special exhibition at the Florence Nightingale Museum located at St Thomas’ Hospital, which faces the Palace of Westminster across the River Thames on the South Bank , running from 21 September 2018 to 16 June 2019, marks the centenary of the Spanish flu pandemic, one of the most devastating, yet largely forgotten, events in human history.

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 The exhibition explores the scale of the 1918 pandemic, which was exacerbated by large scale movement of troops at the end of the war which contributed to the rapid spread of the disease around the world.

It also focuses on the critical role nurses played in treating victims, from nurses in the field to ordinary women looking after patients at home and in civilian hospitals. Due to the lack of treatment for the disease, the role of these women was incredibly important, and a selfless act, as many of them contracted the virus themselves.

 The exact origin of Spanish flu is unknown, but the virus was named as such because of early reports emanating from Spain, which was neutral during World War I and therefore did not censor the press during wartime. 

 Unusually, compared to seasonal flu outbreaks, healthy young adults were particularly at risk. Victims suffered some truly gruesome symptoms, including delirium, explosive nosebleeds and distinctive blue tinged skin caused by a lack of oxygen as their lungs filled with fluid and pus. 

In an era before vaccines and antibiotics, people tried any treatment they could, including eating kerosene-soaked sugar lumps and injecting themselves with strychnine, a strong poison.

The scale of the pandemic was so vast, that essential public services broke down across the globe, hospitals were overwhelmed with patients, and a shortage of both coffins and gravediggers meant that the bodies of victims could remain unburied for weeks.

Some of the world’s great figures were infected and notable survivors include Walt Disney, political activist Mahatma Gandhi, actress Greta Garbo, philosopher Walter Benjamin, and painter Edvard Munch.  US President Woodrow Wilson, UK Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Kaiser Wilhelm II, instrumental political figures during the war and ensuing Armistice, all survived too.

David Green, Director, Florence Nightingale Museum said: “One hundred years ago, people didn’t understand viruses like influenza, how the disease spread, or even how to treat the symptoms as antibiotics had not yet been discovered.  The only thing that seemed to help was good nursing, a profession which was revolutionised by Florence Nightingale, just a few decades earlier.

This exhibition reflects on this largely forgotten historic event and recognises the important contribution of both professional nurses in hospitals and ordinary women at home, in caring for victims.”

The exhibition also asks the question: could a similar pandemic strike again?

Joanne Bosanquet MBE QN, Deputy Chief Nurse, Public Health England, comments: “The 1918 flu pandemic was devastating and had a major impact on global health. What this, and the 2009 flu pandemic teach us, is the unpredictable nature of influenza and the need for pandemic preparedness. The NHS and the nursing profession will be at the forefront of any pandemic response. Learning from past experiences is vital to planning and implementing effective measures to protect public health.”     

We know a flu pandemic is a real possibility, which is why we have robust and well-rehearsed plans in place for a number of scenarios. This includes strategies on rapidly offering antiviral treatment to the UK population and quickly being able to implement large scale vaccination programmes to reduce the impact of the infection.

“This exhibition is extremely interesting and helps to remind us of the importance of being prepared.”

Using its expertise, collections and knowledge of nursing, the team at the Florence Nightingale Museum has developed an exhibition that explores six key themes through a variety of interpretation, interactives, films and object displays:

–           The global impact and spread of the pandemic

–           What it was like to have Spanish flu and the unusual treatments and remedies used in a desperate attempt to combat the virus  

–          The impact of Spanish flu on everyday life

–           The experiences of both volunteer and professional nurses during the pandemic 

–           Spanish flu in popular culture and famous victims

–           The contemporary relevance of the 1918 pandemic

The exhibition design is inspired by the mass mobilisation of tents to cope with the huge numbers of flu cases around the world.  There are also several unique exhibits on display, including a rare vial of influenza vaccine created by the Royal Army Medical College in 1919, using Spanish flu-infected lung scrapings.

The exhibition, Spanish Flu: Nursing during history’s deadliest pandemic, runs at the Florence Nightingale Museum until 16 June 2019.  Visit www.florence-nightingale.co.uk for visitor information and admission prices.