Clerks Wearing Masks: Building Historical Empathy while Teaching the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

tags: public health, pandemics, teaching history

E. Thomas Ewing is a professor of history at Virginia Tech; he tweets @ethomasewing. Jeffrey S. Reznick is chief of the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health; he tweets @jeffreysreznick.

When a dozen Virginia Tech students began the course Topics in the History of Data in Social Context in January 2020, we expected that they would learn how to connect historical inquiry with statistical analysis—but we had no idea how their research on the 1918 influenza epidemic would become so relevant to our everyday lives. The course itself was a partnership between its instructor, Tom Ewing, a professor of history at Virginia Tech, and Jeffrey Reznick, the chief of the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), who, with his colleagues, had planned to host an onsite workshop with the students late in the semester. 

The outcome of this partnership was dynamic and impactful: students combined their visual analyses of images and data to build what the AHA’s Tuning Project describes as “empathy toward people in the context of their distinctive historical moments.” By studying quantitative evidence compiled in state department health reports and reported in local newspapers, students found ways to use their present experiences of living through a pandemic to deepen their appreciation for studying original source materials (and vice versa).  

As historians, we are accustomed to exploring and surfacing layers of meaning embedded within historical sources of various formats, as well as combining sources to form new insights. Modeling this work with our students provided remarkable new insights as we looked more closely at one photograph of three clerks from the National Archives. The caption typed on the reverse of the original offers some useful information: “МАSKS FOR PROTECTION AGAINST INFLUENZA. Girl clerks in New York at work with masks carefully tied about their faces. Taken: 10-16-18.” However, this photograph has limits as a source: the “girl clerks” are anonymous and the business is not identified. The Sun newspaper published the photograph on October 27, 1918, with a similar caption: “Girl clerks at work with influenza masks to prevent the spread of the epidemic which has crippled many business houses.” We know this image circulated in public, but the newspaper provided no further information about these individuals. Therefore, the most useful clue was the date written on the reverse, which made it possible to locate this image in a specific moment of time during the epidemic. 


Statistics from the New York Board of Health provide additional evidence about the distribution of deaths by age and occupation that build historical empathy for the experience of these women. The 1918 influenza caused unusually high proportions of deaths among adults aged 20 to 40. In New York, 4,787 men and 5,213 women in this age group died from either influenza or pneumonia during the epidemic. The New York Health Department also reported deaths by occupation. “Office clerks,” the job category with the second-highest totals, recorded the deaths of 439 men and 289 women. This employment category accounted for more women’s deaths than any other occupation in the two months from September 14 to November 16. At the peak of the epidemic, we can estimate as many as 10 women clerks died each day from influenza. To be a “girl clerk” in fall 1918 in New York City was to be a member of a vulnerable population, a fact which is not evident from this photograph alone. We could only come to this insight by contextualizing it through contemporary statistics. 

Read entire article at Perspectives on History

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