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Centennial Of 1918 Flu Epidemic Prompts Program On Social History

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This fall marks 100 years since the deadly flu epidemic of 1918.

A century ago, a deadly flu virus swept across the state and around the world. Millions of people died, including more than 6,000 in Iowa.

Over the next month, social historian Michael Luick-Thrams will visit dozens of libraries, schools and museums in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana with a presentation he calls The Killer. He said it’s an effort to help people understand the scope of the disaster because it is a piece of history that is not well known.

Luick-Thrams, director of the TRACES Center for History and Culture, has worked with an international team to create public presentations on the flu and other reactionary social movements, with a particular emphasis on the period of 1914-1934 in the Midwest. He’s drawn to the story of the flu, he said, because it affected nearly everyone and yet there was a collective near-silence about it.

“It’s now literally a century later, in September, October, November 1918 this virus was raging across the state, our country, across the world,” Luick-Thrams said. “And with its centennial, I’m surprised how few people know about it and even those who know about it don’t seem to know much about it.”

Luick-Thrams says history offers a distant mirror of how we as a society respond to the crises in our own time.  He said talking about contemporary issues such as climate change can immediately provoke strong emotional reactions that sometimes shut down dialog. But a better grasp on the challenging incidents and issues of the past may ultimately give people insight into the present.

“We are the consequence of the things that our ancestors did, the things they thought, the decisions they made, (the) changes they were willing to make or not,” Luick-Thrams said. “And so by looking at the tea leaves leave of time, hopefully we can get some wisdom for today.”

Luick-Thrams said he wants people to understand why the residents who survived the flu epidemic largely chose not to share their stories. Learning about society at that time, and its influence on the history that got passed down, may give people a better understanding of today’s challenges, he said.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames