- The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918–1919: Perspectives from the Iberian Peninsula and the Americas ed. by María-Isabel Porras-Gallo and Ryan A. Davis
“Spanish influenza had nothing ‘Spanish’ about it,” insisted an indignant Spanish medical historian nearly twenty years ago.1 Indeed, she might have added that even the label “Spanish” was a misnomer, being the product of the absence of censorship in neutral Spain during World War I, which allowed accounts of the outbreak there to be reported worldwide and not understated, as was the case when it came to describing its impact on countries at war. Yet, given the accusatory implication of the label, suggesting that Spain was primarily responsible for the pandemic, several Spanish historians have, since the 1990s, sought to establish just how severe the pandemic really was in that country. Written in Spanish, however, their findings remain little known in the English-speaking world; it is one of plusses of the volume under review that it makes a selection of their work available in English for the first time. In addition, the two medical historians who edited the volume have not limited the book’s coverage to Spain. Two of the specially commissioned thirteen chapters in the volume deal with Portugal, four with the ex-Iberian colonies of Brazil and Argentina, and two (rather incongruously) with Canada and English-language works of fiction featuring the 1918–19 pandemic as their subject. How the last two—illuminating though they are—fit into the book’s Iberian theme is not explained, neither is why they were included, given that both had already been published as journal articles. Maybe the fact that one (on the gendered nature of the anti-epidemic response in Montreal) originally appeared in French persuaded the editors to expand their efforts to overcome English-speakers’ unilingualism, which is such a barrier in a transnational topic par excellence like the “Spanish” flu. Given that only one other chapter is identified as having been translated into English, the ability of the Spanish-speaking authors to write in passable English (presumably with the editors’ assistance) is to be applauded.
Apart from the opening chapter—which is not grounded in a national experience, and instead trains a twenty-first century biochemical eye on the 1918–19 pandemic as an example of an emerging infectious disease—the ten chapters that do focus on the Iberian or ex-Iberian world examine a wide array of responses to its presence. Some do so by looking at the pandemic in particular cities like Pamplona and Alicante in Spain and Belo Horizonte and Salvador in Brazil; others are broader in geographical scope, investigating, for instance, contemporary medical debates in Brazil on the aetiology of the epidemic or the way in which the experience of combating the epidemic in Portugal helped shape that country’s subsequent public health policies. Responses to the epidemic of three central but little-examined national institutions, the Church in Portugal, the army in Spain, [End Page 175] and the press in Spain and Brazil, are also put under the spotlight, though the analysis of the latter is at times overdetermined by the authors’ immersion in discourse theory. Sentences like “The discursive nucleus of prophylaxis as the surreptitious replacement for the voice of alarm presents an etymological angle” (p. 208) will need a second translation, this time into comprehensible English.
Notwithstanding such occasional opacity, the volume extends not only the geographical range of the English-language historiography of the 1918–19 influenza pandemic, but also its thematic scope through its application of hitherto little-used lenses like the Church, the army, the press, mutual benefit societies, feminism, and latter-day fiction. What it does not do, however, despite its claim to the contrary, is to demonstrate “the importance of the Iberian Peninsula as the point of connection, both epidemiologically and discursively, between Europe and the Americas in a context...