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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


A[got]chu! Surviving the Flu

By Sarah Savage Hanney, on 2 December 2013


As the temperature drops and the wind blows harshly through the wind tunnels of the Tube, it genuinely feels like winter in London! When visitors arrive in the UCL museums blowing their noses and smelling of Strepsils, I am yet again reminded it is cold and flu season.

When I discuss my research on the Spanish Influenza and Encephalitis Lethargica epidemics, one of the first responses I get from visitors is: “So you’re a medical doctor, right? How can I treat [insert ailment]?”  Unfortunately I am not licenced nor qualified to give such advice; however, I can discuss from a historical perspective what treatments have worked and not worked for illnesses ranging from the common cold to malaria.

Always cover your sneezes! Photograph: NHS

Always cover your sneezes! Photograph: NHS

Throughout the history of medicine, societies have sought to find more effective and fool-proof treatments for everyday illnesses. Simple home remedies such as tying a bulb of garlic around the neck to ward off insects (potentially carrying an infectious disease such as malaria) and drinking water rich in minerals for health have existed for thousands of years and are practiced consciously or subconsciously still today. Even the types of vitamins we consume, including vitamin C and zinc, to prevent and cure colds, are influenced by this inherited medical knowledge passed down from generation to generation.

Perhaps the most frequently asked question I receive is: “How do I prevent influenza?” The short answer is, you can’t. Since influenza is a viral infection that spreads through transmission in human contact or infected surface contact, it is very difficult to live in a virus-free zone. Especially in London where travellers sneeze openly in trains and residents rely upon communal areas for business and pleasure, we are flu-prone.

However, what are some ways that Londoners a hundred years ago combatted the same illnesses we suffer with today? In the early 20th century, medicine was as much preventative as it was curative.  Diet was an essential tool that families used as part of inherited medicinal knowledge [think of your mother’s advice]. Certain foods including milk, citrus, and broths became the main ‘sick foods’ during the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic in England alongside fever reducers, purgatives, and even morphine.  In addition to the prescribed manufactured drugs, residents also turned to older recipes to combat the initial signs of the flu. Dried flowers, including nettle, would have been used to make teas, while crushed herbs, such as mint, could be applied with a salve to the chest to improve breathing.

Spanish Influenza at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. 1918  Photograph: Wikipedia

Spanish Influenza at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. 1918
Photograph: Wikipedia

Although medical professionals did not understand the cause or spread of influenza viruses in 1918, boards of health throughout England closed public spaces of leisure and business to prevent human-to-human transmission of the killer flu. Despite public health departments’ attempts to isolate and quarantine populations across the globe, an estimated 20 to 50 million died worldwide. Since influenza commonly has a three to five day incubation period (when the virus becomes settled in your body) before a patient begins showing symptoms, it is naturally difficult to isolate all infected persons to prevent spread to the healthy. As medicine advances further and we develop more complex, powerful vaccinations, it is possible that illnesses such as the common flu will become less common, or at least less severe.

From looking at past influenza epidemics, the best tips are:

  • Self-quarantine!
  • Maintain a healthy diet both before and during illness
  • Avoid public transport during an outbreak
  • Stay at home if you are feeling ill
  • Use fresh supplies when tending to the ill (boil utensils, wash bedding and clothing at a high temperature, etc.)
  • Always give an ill patient ample ventilation
  • If someone begins bleeding from the eyes (as in the case of Spanish Flu), it’s best to move down to the next train car

For more information concerning helpful tips during Flu season, visit the NHS, World Health Organization, and Centre for Disease Control websites.



Viruses of Mice and Men

By Gemma Angel, on 3 June 2013

Sarah Savage by Sarah Savage






Recently in the Grant Museum, I had the most exciting 35 minute engagement with a mother and son visiting London from Jersey in the Channel Islands.  Since her son was very interested in coming to UCL for undergraduate study, the mum thought the best idea would be to visit the campus and see all that UCL has to offer, including the museums on campus.  I caught this family on their first stop on the UCL museums trail.  After introducing myself and telling the boy’s mother a little bit about the UCL student engagers group, she quickly asked what my research is specifically about. I told her that I am an historical epidemiologist specializing in the Spanish Influenza Pandemic 1918-19, and the Encephalitis Lethargica Epidemic 1917-1930. Her eyes grew quite wide and she replied that her son had been hoping to meet someone doing research like mine, to find out more about pandemics. Her main reference point for Spanish Influenza was that the character Edward Cullen from the Twilight films had died from the pandemic! Alas, I encounter that response quite often. If anything, Twilight put the ‘forgotten pandemic’ on the radar of the general population and teenage girls everywhere.[1]

Spanish Influenza 1Although previously I’ve mainly engaged in the Petrie Museum next to objects of everyday Egyptian life that relate to disease, I found that amongst the great preserved animals of medical colleges past, many fascinating connections to my research topic presented themselves in conversation with visitors. The display of parasitic worms, although admittedly horrifying, can be used as a tool to demonstrate how a virus inhabits and travels through the body. A gentleman visitor later in the afternoon stood in shock when confronted with the incredible size of some of the parasitic worms that are able to live in the human body. 

The brave visitor from Jersey further engaged with me to discuss exactly how viruses spread through the body, mutate, and ‘disappear’ after an outbreak. I put disappear in parenthesis, since some viruses can simply become dormant in the body.  During our conversation, she inquired as to what initially drew me to epidemics. “Most young students do not dream of studying viruses that wipe out entire populations for a living!” she told me. spanish Influenza 2Oh, but I was that student, fascinated by the plague, and how tiny organisms could exist in our bodies. Once I’d told her more about my academic background in the United States, she asked me how common it is for historians to examine medicine or epidemics. Although UCL previously had a Centre for the History of Medicine for postgraduate researchers, now we are divided amongst different disciplines including history, neurology, and psychology.  As an historian specialising in epidemics, I explained to her that I am not only interested in the physical side of how epidemics work, but also how societies react to an outbreak.  During the 1918-19 Spanish Influenza outbreak, governments in England and the United States quarantined areas of cities and closed all government buildings. Although these measures prevented the spread of the virus to some extent, many citizens became infected prior to the required quarantines and closures. There are many links between government measures and public behaviour during historical influenza epidemics during the early 20th century and the avian and swine flu outbreaks of present day.The visitor mentioned the 2009 Swine Flu outbreak, and how the fear of coming into contact with an infected person effected daily life and decisions to frequent public spaces. By the end of our lengthy conversation, we had discussed everything from 20th century epidemics to life on the Channel Islands and life as a UCL student. After her son had finished peering into every case in the Grant Museum, his mother expressed how enlightened and intellectually stimulated she felt to discuss such a specialised topic with a UCL researcher, before moving on to encounter another member of our team at one of UCL other museum spaces. As a new team member, this was a heartening conclusion to a very inspiring conversation, and I am thoroughly looking forward to future conversations with museums visitors from all over the world…



[1] Alfred W. Crosby: America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (2003).