All posts by Ernest Zitser, Ph.D.

Putting the ‘Global’ Back Into Global Pandemic, Part 6

This is the sixth in a series of blog posts on global pandemics written by the staff of Duke Libraries’ International and Area Studies Department.  Like the firstsecond, third, fourth, and fifth posts, it is edited by Ernest Zitser, Ph.D., Librarian for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies, library liaison to the International Comparative Studies Program, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University.  The following post is written by Heidi Madden, Ph.D. , Librarian for Western European and Medieval Renaissance Studies.

You have all probably seen them: online reading lists created expressly for the bored souls forced to stay indoors because of the restrictions on movement imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  (If not, check out the “Meta-List of the Books You Should Read in Coronavirus Quarantine,” created by the writers at Open Culture).  Some booklist-makers promise to provide prospective readers with cathartic relief from coronavirus fears through curative stories. Others focus on escapist fantasies that keep you sitting on the edge of your seat (Literary Hub Round).  Still others recommend plague novels that let us walk with our fears in virtual communities and to experience our common humanity through empathy. But no matter where you find them or who writes them, most online reading lists created during the COVID-19 pandemic—such as this piece in Vogue magazine, significantly entitled “Six Centuries later, The Decameron is Suddenly the Book of the Moment”—reach back to the Italian Renaissance and, more specifically, to Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) and his Decameron (multiple copies of which are available in English translation, in both print and electronic format at Duke University Libraries).  In this blog post, I will try to provide some context for understanding this seemingly irresistible attraction to what more radical literary critics would dismiss as a canonic work of yet another dead, white, Western male.

Giorgio Vasari, Six Tuscan Poets (c. 1548-1570). Boccaccio (third from left) peeks out over the shoulders of Petrarch and Dante

First, let’s begin with some historical and biographical context.  In 1347, when the bubonic plague—or what Joris Roosen and Monica H. Green’s 2020 bibliography on the state of Black Death research in the era of COVID-19 called The Mother of All Pandemics—arrived in the port of Messina, Sicily, and quickly began to spread across the Italian peninsula, Boccaccio was a 34-year-old struggling writer living at home with his parents.  The illegitimate son of a prominent and prosperous citizen of the city of Florence, Boccaccio aspired to follow in the footsteps of his older and more famous contemporary, the great Italian poet Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-1374), and their even greater role model, Dante Aligheri (d. 1321), the author of the Divine Comedy.  That is, Boccaccio wanted to become a “humanist,” i.e. a scholar-writer who used the classics of Greek and Roman literature to create a rich and vibrant, vernacular Italian language, in place of what he and his allies dismissed as the stilted, officious Latin tongue, the language of both Church and State.  In effect, to transform the irredeemably corrupt world that they had inherited from previous generations and to lay the groundwork for a metaphorical rebirth (It. rinascimento, Fr. renaissance) of the beauty and splendor that the humanists associated with the lost world of classical antiquity.

The Black Death in Florence. Decameron. BNF Fr. 239, f. 1r.

When the plague reached the city of Florence, in 1348, tens of thousands of people died of the deadly infectious disease, at least three times the number of those that had died of the same disease during an earlier outbreak back in 1340.  This time, Boccaccio’s father and stepmother were among the victims of the deadly infectious disease—a personal loss that also left the writer in possession of the family fortune.  Now that Boccaccio had the financial means to pursue an independent literary career, he embarked upon an ambitious, multi-year, book project, one that would eventually come to be known as his literary masterpiece.  The setting for this work, which was written between 1348 and 1353, was inspired, at least in part, by the author’s personal experience as an eyewitness and survivor of an outbreak of the plague.

Boccaccio, Decameron (Ferrara, c. 1467). MS. Holkham misc. 49, fol. 5r. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

However, the Black Death was more than just the immediate stimulus to Boccaccio’s most famous literary work.  It also served as the literary framing device for the 100 novellas contained in the anthology to which he gave an Italian name that he had coined, as one would expect of a Renaissance humanist, from ancient Greek (< δέκᾰ, “ten” and ἡμέρᾱ, “day”).  This was a reference to the number of days that the book’s main characters—consisting of a company of 10 young Florentines (seven women and three men, representing various vices and virtues)—spent in bucolic self-isolation, regaling each other with stories, while the pandemic raged outside the walls of their villa and all around them.

The description of the plague with which Boccaccio’s begins his book was not just an eyewitness account of the outbreak in Florence in 1348.  It was a mini-literary work in itself, inspired by the classic description of the plague of Athens in the History of the Peloponnesian War, written by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides (460 BC to 400 BC).  Like Thucydides, Boccaccio’s description of the plague in the introduction to the Decameron offered a realistic account of the outbreak of the disease, its symptoms, and its impact on society; and like Thucydides, he focused on earthly matters rather than on supernatural powers.  In this, as in many other instances—for example, in many of the plots and themes of the novellas in the Decameron—Boccaccio reveals the humanist project of translating classical stories, motifs, and images into the literary language of the contemporary author and his era. In effect, Boccaccio can be seen as a node in a network of literary texts and their authors—both those that preceded him and those that followed him—and thus as part of a much more complex web of cultural linkages than is usually depicted in the old syllabi of Western Civ courses.

Connections between Boccaccio and literature before and after the publication of the Decameron

A striking visualization of the connections between Boccaccio and literature before and after the publication of the Decameron was created in 2016 by Kristján Hannesson, a graduate student in the UNC Department of English and Comparative Literature (you can download the full chart from Scribd).  Kristján was one of the grad students who took a course on Boccaccio taught by Duke Professor Martin Eisner, a renowned expert on the Italian Renaissance and an authority on Boccaccio.  Professor Eisner helped Kristján and the other students in the course to organize and curate an exhibit on Boccaccio and the Genealogy of Stories, which was held on July 20, 2016 – October 16, 2016 in The Jerry and Bruce Chappell Family Gallery at Duke University Libraries.  As the title suggested, the exhibit sought to show the genealogy of all of Boccaccio’s stories: where they came from and whom they influenced.

Each circle in the genealogy of stories corresponded to an exhibit case in the Chappell Family Gallery that allowed for the exploration of the texts found in beautiful rare editions held at Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Boccaccio and the Genealogy of Stories Exhibit (2016)

The exhibit cases teamed with beautiful Boccaccio related editions from the Rubenstein Library.  One case, for example, displayed a painting and an actual potted plant next to a book showing the opening lines of John Keats’ Isabella, or the Pot of Basil (1818), a narrative poem in which the English Romantic adapted the story of Lisabetta (Fourth Day – Novel 5): Her lover has been murdered and appears to her in her dreams; she goes to dig up the lover’s body and plants the head in a pot of basil that she tends to day and night.  Isn’t that romantic?

John Keats, “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil “(1818) uses the story of Lisabetta (Fourth Day – Novel 5)

Another exhibit case included a depiction of a (literally) heart-wrenching scene from the Decameron (Fourth Day, Novel 1): juxtaposing a painting (c. 1650) by Bernardino Mei (1612 – 1676) of Ghismonda, cherishing the heart of her murdered lover, Guiscardo, with a miniature on the same theme from one of the illustrated editions of the Decameron, held by the Rubenstein Library.

Ghismonda cherishing the heart of her murdered lover Guiscardo, by Bernardino Mei (Fourth Day –Novel 1)

As these two examples suggest, and as the prominence of female characters in the Decameron demonstrates, in Boccaccio’s case, the “human” in humanist explicitly included women.  As the compiler of an encyclopedia on the lives of famous women (De Mulieribus Claris, available in English translation)–the first in what became a literary genre that stretches from the 14th-century to the present–the Florentine author was acutely aware of the important role that women play in society, not just in traditional familial roles, but as free agents and independent thinkers.  Boccaccio’s recognition of the role of women in society and the importance of hearing their stories is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the Decameron appears so modern.

But perhaps the best explanation for the appeal of Boccaccio’s work is also the simplest.  The Decameron is an anthology of love stories, which are by definition based on perennial themes (jealousy, anger, fate, desire, hatred, lust, virtue) that change much more slowly than the societies around them.  Pandemics may come and go, but a good love story will always stick with you.

 

Farewell, Kristina Troost, and Thanks for a Job Well Done!

By Holly Ackerman, Ph.D., with assistance from Ernest Zitser, Ph.D.

On June 30, 2020, Kristina Kade Troost, Ph.D. will retire from the Duke University Libraries (DUL), after a diverse and distinguished career spanning 30 years.

Kristina (Kris) Troost

Kris will be remembered as much for the qualities of her character as for her innovative collection building, teaching, mentoring, and contributions to professional organizations. Margaret McKean, Duke Professor Emerita of Political Science, who first met Kris in 1977 and helped to recruit her to Duke, described her this way: “Kris is a gifted colleague-builder and a colleague-keeper; a friend-builder and a friend-keeper. She’s also an institution-builder who thinks big and thinks ahead.” Deborah Jakubs, Rita DiGiallonardo Holloway University Librarian & Vice Provost for Library Affairs, who has known Kris for many years, agrees with this characterization, saying: “It is remarkable how one person can create a climate that produces outstanding results. Kris has done that with IAS [DUL’s International & Area Studies Department, which Deborah created and which Kris headed for over two decades] and as a mentor to students in the Asian/Pacific Studies Institute [where Kris served as graduate advisor from 2008 to 2020].”

Kris (in red jacket) at the Duke Asian/Pacific Studies Institute

Unlike many of her peers, Kris began her distinguished library career as a professional historian, rather than as a library school graduate.  The topic of the doctoral dissertation that she defended at Harvard University (1990)—the link between common property and community formation in self-governing villages of late medieval Japan—seemed to be about as far as one could get from the world of library science. And yet Kris could not hide her obvious love of all things related to Japanese Studies.  From 1977-1990, while starting her family and completing her dissertation, she participated actively in the community of Japanese Studies scholars in the Research Triangle.  Andrew Gordon, then a Duke Professor of History, noticed her interest in Japanese Studies and urged her to consider a career in librarianship. Thus began her transition to the field of library science.

In 1990, DUL hired Kris to serve, on a half time basis, as Duke’s first Japanese Studies Bibliographer.  Two years later, she received a promotion to the position of full-time East Asian Librarian, with the responsibility for building collections in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean.  That experience taught Kris a valuable lesson about the need for language-specific subject expertise and the value of not spreading oneself too thin.  In 1998, after she became the head of IAS, Kris worked tirelessly to increase DUL’s capacity to provide support by subject area specialists who knew the language and culture of the world areas that they curated.  Under her leadership, the staff of IAS doubled in size and now includes specialists covering Africa, China, Russia & Eastern Europe, Japan, Jewish Studies, Korea, Latin America, the Middle East, South & Southeast Asia, and Western Europe.

Kris (second from right) with IAS staff, Nov. 8, 2013

Kris’ accomplishments are too many and varied to list in a blog post.  Instead, I have decided to focus on four key areas where she has made a difference: collections, teaching/mentoring/managing, service to the Libraries, and service to the profession.

Creation of DUL’s East Asia Collection

In 1991, Kris personally went through the Perkins stacks, pulling every book written in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese – a total of 20,000 titles – in order to form one, consolidated, easy-to-use East Asia Collection. Today that collection contains 200,000 volumes and is the single largest separately-organized and -maintained East Asia Collection in the Southeastern United States. Commenting on the value of that work, Amy V. Heinrich, the former Director of Columbia University’s C. V. Starr East Asian Library, points out: “Kris was a voice in national organizations advocating for libraries with small collections. She saw to it that they were included in discussions, obtained funding, and could grow.”

Teaching/Mentoring/Managing

Kris established and regularly taught a popular course on “Research Methods in Japanese Studies,” which was cross-listed not only in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, but also in Cultural Anthropology, History, Political Science, Religion, and Art History. She later adapted the course to cover multiple world areas, making it possible to co-teach it with her IAS colleagues. Kris helped draft the proposal for an MA in East Asian Studies and served as the Director of Graduate Studies for the program from 2008 until her retirement. Speaking of her role as a manager and supervisor, former Librarian for South Asian Studies, Avinash Maheshwary says: “She was an ideal manager who constantly moved you and your program forward without looking over your shoulder. She was a vital participant in creating a joint TRLN librarian position for South and Southeast Asian Studies  – the only one of its kind in the U.S.” Luo Zhou, DUL’s current Chinese Studies Librarian, echoes these thoughts: “She has given me a broad space to grow, supported my initiatives with advice and suggestions, and often gave me a pat on the back when I was frustrated and tired.”

Serving DUL as a whole

As President of the Librarians Assembly, Kris worked with the leaders of DUL and the professional school libraries to obtain a regular budget for Librarians Assembly, in order to establish and help maintain a speakers program, thereby expanding the substantive possibilities on offer to the group as a whole.  As a member of the Perkins Relocation Group, Kris helped to establish workflows for moving books to the Library Service Center and for initially identifying exactly what materials would need to be moved off-site. In 1997, her multiple contributions were recognized with the Florence Blakely Award—the highest staff honor conferred by the Duke University Libraries—which rewards extraordinary performance that far exceeds individual goals or expectations.

Serving the Profession

Kris has served as the President of both of the main organizations in her field, The Council of East Asian Libraries (CEAL) and the North American Coordinating Council on Japanese Library Resources (NCC).  As Amy Heinrich points out: “She always came with a vision.” For example, when she chaired the NCC (1998-2000), Kris organized an annual conference that set the agenda for the first decade of NCC collaboration in the 21st century by agreeing on joint priorities for collection development, serials access, technical services workflows, and recruitment of new librarians.  Kris’ contributions to East Asian libraries/East Asian Studies and to CEAL were recognized in 2020, when she became the inaugural recipient of the Council of East Asian Libraries (CEAL) Distinguished Service Award.

No summary of Kris’ career would be complete without mentioning the potluck parties that she hosted in her lovely home, continuing an IAS tradition established by Deborah Jakubs. Deborah says, “Kris and I were lucky to come up in International and Area Studies at a time when it was communal and had deep engagement by faculty and librarians working so closely. We had a lot of fun together as well as many professional accomplishments as a group.”

Party at Kris’ house, Nov. 23, 2009

Best wishes on your next chapter, Kris! And thank you for leaving us with a strong foundation.

Putting the ‘Global’ Back Into Global Pandemic, Part 5

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts on global pandemics written by the staff and affiliates of Duke Libraries’ International and Area Studies Department.  Like the firstsecond, third, and fourth posts, it is edited by Ernest Zitser, Ph.D., Librarian for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies, library liaison to the International Comparative Studies Program, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University.  The following post is written by Rachel Ariel, Librarian for Jewish Studies.

Plague of Frogs

When I was asked to write a blog post on pandemics in Jewish history, after some hesitation, I eventually settled on the topic of the Ten Plagues of Egypt—Blood, Frogs, Lice, Beasts, Cattle disease, Boils, Hail, Locusts, Darkness, and, finally, Death of the First-Born—that are mentioned in Exodus (7:14–12:31), the second book of the Hebrew Bible.  This text, constituting the sacred scriptures of the Jewish religion, had circulated in oral form for centuries before it was finally written down, sometime between about 1200BCE and 165CE.  In other words, this is one of the earliest recorded instances of human thinking about plagues and infectious diseases, as well as the difficult choices that ordinary people have to make in order to survive in the face of such deadly, extraordinary, and seemingly inexplicable events.

Plague of Lice

The biblical story containing a description of the Ten Plagues may not have been intended as a realistic account of an actual historical event, but rather as a religious parable, with a didactic message.  The depiction of the Ten Plagues occurs in the context of a larger story of divine redemption and national liberation.  Anyone who has read the biblical narrative or watched the 1956 Hollywood epic, The Ten Commandments, knows that the plagues were visited upon the land of Egypt because of Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to heed the words of God’s emissary, Moses.  As the mouthpiece of God, Moses had repeatedly implored the all-powerful ruler of Egypt to emancipate His chosen people—the Israelite slaves whom Pharaoh had used, abused, and planned to exterminate by ordering the massacre of all first-born males (Exodus 1:16, 22)—or else face His righteous wrath.  The freedom obtained by means of Divine intervention is precisely what is commemorated annually during the Jewish holiday of Passover (Heb.: פֶּסַח‎ , “He passed over”).

Plague of Wild Beasts

Traditionally, the Ten Plagues are recited during the festive celebration, called a Seder (Heb.: סֵדֶר, ‘order, arrangement’), on the first night (or first two nights) of Passover.  These plagues are listed in every Haggadah (Heb.: הַגָּדָה‎, “telling,” “narration”), which is the written service-book for the Seder.  Visitors to Capturing the Moment: Centuries of the Passover Haggadah, an online exhibit of illustrated Passover Haggadot (plural of Haggadah) from the collection of the Rubenstein Library at Duke University, can get a sense of what such service-books look like over the ages.  For the fact is, there is no standard version.  Illustrated Haggadot represent the time and place of their creation. While the textual elements (blessings, prayers, stories, songs) remain largely the same, the art in the Haggadah reflects the customs, fashions, landscapes, architecture, and artistic styles of the surrounding culture.

Plague of Cattle disease

Although images of The Ten Plagues often appear in Illustrated Haggadot, the 2017 exhibit on which the online version is based did not include any visual representation of these Plagues.  The more I thought about this omission, the more I realized that this was not a coincidence.  To be honest, the plagues that befell the Egyptians always made me somewhat uncomfortable. Were all the Egyptians to suffer because of their ruler’s actions? Were the innocent punished with the wicked?  Was this the reason I was so hesitant about writing this blog post?  Trying to understand my own feelings, I looked for answers in the traditional resources that I had encountered and found comforting throughout the years.  One of these texts, The Family Participation Haggadah by Noam Zion and David Dishon, invokes a line from the Proverbs of Solomon (Heb.: שלמה מִשְלֵ), a book in the third section of the Hebrew Bible, which addresses the moral unease that I was feeling.  During the Seder, while reciting the Ten Plagues, it is customary for the participants to take a drop of wine from their cup and let it fall on their plate as they say the name of each one of the ten plagues.  By doing so, say Zion and Dishon (101) “we acknowledge that our own joy is lessened and incomplete. For our redemption had to come by means of the punishment of other human beings.  Even though these are just punishments for evil acts, as it is said ‘At the fall of your enemy, do not be glad and when he trips, let not your heart rejoice!” (Proverbs 24:17)

Israelites’ safe crossing the Red Sea

Even more powerful for me is the biblical commentary (Midrash) authored by Rabbi Johanan bar Nappaha (c.180–279 CE), which appears in Tractate Megilah 10b of the Talmud (Heb.: תַּלְמוּד‎,”instruction, learning”), the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law and theology.  Although this commentary is not about the Ten Plagues per se, it also concerns an episode from the story of Exodus that teaches us that God does not experience pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction from witnessing the suffering of human beings, even those who deserve punishment.  As we all know from watching The Ten Commandments, after escaping from Egypt, the Israelites reached the Red Sea (or, more accurately, the Sea of Reeds), while the Egyptian Pharaoh with his army were chasing after them.  When Moses raised his hand, God parted the waters and the Israelites safely crossed the sea.  But when Pharaoh and his army attempted to follow after them, the sea waters returned, the Egyptians were drowned, and the Israelites were finally liberated from their bondage to Pharaoh. Rejoicing in this miracle, Rabbi Johanan wrote, the angels tried to sing songs of praise to God, but God immediately silenced them: “My handiwork is drowning in the sea and you sing songs of praise?”

Plague of Hail

In the twentieth century, during the Second World War, a Polish-born Hebrew poet living in Palestine wrote a poetry cycle called The Poems of the Ten Plagues of Egypt (Heb.: שירי מכות מצרים).  Nathan Alterman (1910-1970) was a modernist poet, playwright, essayist, and translator, who became one of the most revered poets of Israel.  He composed this cycle of poems between the years 1939 and 1944, while a war was spreading across the globe like a deadly virus, leaving millions of innocent victims—including six million European Jews—in its wake.  At the center of the cycle, Alterman devotes a poem to each of the Ten Plagues.  But in an interesting twist on the traditional story in Exodus, each poem is written from the perspective of the Egyptians and does not even mention the Israelite slaves or their struggle for freedom.  Nor is there any mention of the Jews of Europe or of the war against Germany (although their absent presence was apparent to Alterman’s contemporaries and was one of the reasons why this collection of poems caused such controversy when it was first published).

Death of the Firstborn

The focus of the action in Alterman’s Poems of the Ten Plagues of Egypt is on the drama that takes place in No-Amon, the greatest of the ancient Egyptian cities, whose magnificent structures now form the principal ruins of Karnak and Luxor.  During the course of the poetic cycle, this city becomes the symbol of human civilization as a whole, which is being battered over-and-over again by the plagues and by worsening catastrophes that are threatening to bring with them complete and utter destruction.  These cataclysms are a universal phenomenon, spreading over entire continents and being passed down through the generations.  But at the center of the suffering are an Egyptian father and his firstborn son, who are (in the words of the 1978 English translation) the “righteous and innocent” victims of the plagues:

The judgment of swords has no fault
but when shedding of blood is spent,
it leaves like a taste of salt
the tears of the innocent.”

Plague of Locusts

Nathan Alterman’s cycle of Poems on the Ten Plagues of Egypt raised moral questions of universal concern and called for compassion for all of God’s children at a time when it was nearly impossible not to see things in terms other than ‘good’ or ‘evil,’ ‘black’ or ‘white.’ Alterman’s courageous resolve to bring into the open the pain of the innocent and the injustice of the punishment inflicted upon those who did not sin brings his poems very close to my heart.  And strange as it may sound, they also help me to make sense of the present moment.

Image credits:
Miniatures depicting the Ten Plagues of Egypt and the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea come from the digital version of the medieval illustrated manuscript known as The Golden Haggadah (Barcelona, Spain, ca. 1320), folios 12v-13, 14v. British Library Add. MS 27210.

Putting the ‘Global’ Back Into Global Pandemic, Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts on global pandemics written by the staff and affiliates of Duke Libraries’ International and Area Studies Department.  Like the first, second, and third posts, it is edited by Ernest Zitser, Ph.D., Librarian for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies, library liaison to the International Comparative Studies Program, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University.  The following post is written by Heather Martin, Librarian for African and African American Studies.

Where do you begin when writing a blog post about global pandemics in Africa –the world’s second-largest and second-most populous continent, containing over 60 sovereign states that claim to govern speakers of somewhere between 1200 and 3000 different languages?  And how do you choose from the many infectious diseases that have ebbed and flowed across the face of the continent over its millenia-long history?  If an undergraduate student came to me with such a broad topic for a term paper, I would advise them to focus their idea. Then I would work to help them come up with a topic that is still interesting, but much more manageable with the resources at hand.  That is why I have chosen to write a blog post about the effects of the 1918 influenza pandemic in Africa: a much more historically-delimited topic, which has received less scholarly attention (and is, therefore, of potential interest to other researchers); and a topic that can be addressed with multiple Africa-related print and online source available at Duke Libraries (and, is therefore, do-able).

To begin, it is necessary to point out that English-language academic monographs on the “Spanish flu” in Africa are practically nonexistent, possibly due to the challenges of conducting research of the scope necessary to produce a truly pan-African study.  Even scholarly journal articles about the topic typically have a narrow focus related to one aspect of the pandemic in a single country or geographic region of the continent. For example, K. David Patterson’s 1995 study of “The Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919 in the Gold Coast,” which was published in Transactions of the Ghana Historical Society (and is made available to Duke students, faculty, and staff via Duke Libraries’ subscription to JSTOR), focuses on the way the pandemic affected different socio-economic classes within the borders of that specific nation-state. But, as we all know by now, global pandemics respect no internationally-agreed-upon boundaries.

In order to get any sort of insight into how the 1918 influenza pandemic impacted multiple African countries, we need to turn to a working paper written by Jan-Bart Gewald, Professor of African History and Director of the African Studies Centre, Leiden, The Netherlands.  In an open-access publication entitled Spanish Influenza in Africa: Some Comments Regarding Source Material and Future Research (also available in print at Duke Libraries), Gewald “first draws attention to the social impact of Spanish flu in Africa” by reviewing articles that cover South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Rhodesia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia. He then illustrates how the British Colonial Office records available in the National Archives can expand on previous scholarship. For example, he uses the records to pinpoint the introduction of influenza into Sierra Leone via the warship H.M.S. Mantua, which docked in Freetown in August 1918. Workers who transferred coal to the ship became ill and the disease spread from there.  Finally, Gewald taps the Colonial Office records to provide insight on the influenza pandemic in Gambia and Nigeria as well.  Thanks to Duke Libraries’ paid subscription to Confidential Print: Africa, 1834-1966, a research database that provides access to the United Kingdom’s Colonial, Dominion and Foreign Offices’ confidential correspondence relating to Africa, patrons who wish to pursue the line of research mapped out by Gewald can examine these very same colonial records for themselves.

British colonial records provide one type of primary source about the influenza epidemic in Africa.  Another are the first person, eyewitness accounts by survivors, such as those collected in Howard Phillips’ In a Time of Plague: Memories of the ‘Spanish’ Flu Epidemic of 1918 in South Africa.  These recorded interviews of 127 South African survivors of ‘Black October’—so called because the flu epidemic claimed some 350,000 lives (or 5% of the population of South Africa) in six weeks in September-October of 1918—provide unique, intimate, first-hand accounts of what these men and women saw and heard, how they coped medically, materially and psychologically and what mark this experience left on their lives.

However, in order to form a complete picture of what happened in Africa at the time of the flu epdemic, it is not enough to focus on the records left by colonial administrators and white settlers.  It is also imperative to identify and utilize primary sources from indigenous Black Africans.  For example, in an article entitled “Global Explanations versus Local Interpretations: The Historiography of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 in Africa,” from the journal History in Africa (available via Duke Libraries’ subscription to Project Muse), Matthew Heaton and Toyin Falola stress the importance of oral histories from indigenous Black Africans as an underutilized source base for countering the standard narrative about the 1918 influenza pandemic, which simply assumes that the Spanish flu in Africa followed the same course as it did in other countries.  Getting access to indigenous African oral histories is another question, however.  Luckily, a classic introduction to The Oral Literature in Africa, by Ruth Finnegan, is now available freely online thanks to Open Source Publishers.  The book’s bibliography includes a section on web-based reference material, with links to international scholarly organizations that hold recordings of original African stories and songs.

Although it cannot serve as a substitute for a primary source like an eyewitness account or a colonial government report, works of fiction written by Africans about the African experience is one way that readers can get a sense of what it may have felt like to be there.  For example, in Elechi Amadi’s novel, The Great Ponds (1969), the influenza pandemic of 1918 serves as a silent backdrop to the story of two native African villages that go to war, resort to kidnapping, and rely on religious ritual in a fight over fishing rights to a disputed pond.  While this story is not based on a documented historical incident, Amadi draws from oral traditions that form the collective memory of Nigerians’ experiences with the influenza pandemic.

Amadi’s novel is frequently cited as an example of African and indigenous experiences of the 1918 influenza pandemic. There are brief references to “slave raiders” of the past and to “trading with white men,” but the narrative focuses on the people of the rival villages and how their fight over ownership of a pond is minimized when influenza, which they call wonjo, ravages their area, causing mass death regardless of clan or village affiliation. In contrast to the British colonial records, The Great Ponds presents a more personal view of life leading up to the influenza outbreak in Africa.  As is the case with other great works of literature, its truth-value cannot be judged by the same standards as the works produced by professional historians.  Amadi’s novel strives for something both more local and more universal.  It is up to each individual reader to decide whether the author succeeds in achieving his goal.

 

Putting the ‘Global’ Back Into Global Pandemic, Part 3

This is the third in a series of blog posts on global pandemics written by Duke Libraries’ International and Area Studies Department.  Like the first and second posts, it is edited by Ernest Zitser, Ph.D., Librarian for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies, library liaison to the International Comparative Studies Program, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University.  The following blog post is contributed by Carson Holloway, Librarian for History of Science and Technology, Military History, British and Irish Studies, Canadian Studies and General History. 

Until COVID-19’s arrival in the United States, Ebola, SARS, MERS, and Zika seemed like diseases of the ‘developing,’ ‘under-governed,’ and ‘less sanitary’ parts for the world.  Surely, none of these strange and exotic viruses could ever find a home here, on the soil of the sole remaining superpower, the 20th-century heir of earlier empires on which the sun never set.  The residents of late-seventeenth-century London—at the time, the bustling capitol of an up-and-coming maritime power, one that would eventually reach a territorial size larger than any other empire in history—undoubtedly would have agreed with such an assessment of the situation.  Deadly tropical diseases afflicted British colonies, not the metropole; and the bubonic plague was a relic of Europe’s ‘dark ages,’ not its enlightened present.  Although London did experience sporadic outbreaks of the plague earlier in the century, the residents of the City had been lulled into a false sense of complacency.  So it must have come as a great shock when, in the winter of 1665, the Plague re-appeared in the City.

In their engrossing account of what has come to be known as The Great Plague of London, historian A. Lloyd Moote and microbiologist Dorothy C. Moote estimate that between 1665 and 1666, the bubonic plague killed nearly 100,000 city-dwellers, or almost one third of those who did not flee to the countryside.  Those urban residents who remained in the City, however, did not panic or put themselves under quarantine.  Instead, they continued to fulfill their duties and obligations, keeping as many medical, religious, legal, and business establishments open as long as they possibly could, seemingly unaware that their very activity helped to spread the disease.  By using intimate letters and private diaries, and focusing on the personal experience of specific individuals, from all walks-of-life, the Mootes succeed in painting a compelling portrait of an early-modern city—the capitol of the British Empire—dealing (successfully, but at tremendous cost) with an outbreak of a deadly infectious disease.

Although the current COVID-19 crisis has limited our access to the Duke Library stacks, there are many resources, which can help fill the needs of students and researchers interested in learning more about London’s Great Plague.  Primary sources from the period are relatively scarce.  In 1665 there were no printed newspapers as we have come to know them; rather, information about the plague was spread by personal letter or by word-of-mouth, and, less often, by such ephemeral publications as broadsides or pamphlets.  Fortunately, Duke Libraries subscribe to such research databases as Early English Books Online (EEBO), which provides users with online access to almost all known English-language books and pamphlets published between 1473 and 1700.

Among the latter are such rare gems as Thomas Doolittle’s 1666 self-help book, הוהיל בישא המ [Heb. = “What shall I return to God”], or, A Serious Enquiry for a Suitable Return for Continued Life, in and after a Time of Great Mortality, by a Wasting Plague (anno 1665) answered in XIII directions, which claims to offer its readers instructions “on how to live life after a wasting plague.”  (Just imagine how much money a self-styled life-coach would make if s/he were to publish a 13-step guide to a better life after COVID-19!) Another subscription database, Medieval and Early Modern Sources Online (MEMSO), provides access to other types of English-language primary sources, including family papers and government documents from the period ca. 1100 and 1800, which users can consult in order to find additional contemporary references to the Great Plague.

In some instances, subscription-based electronic resources such as EEBO and MEMSO can be supplemented by those made freely-available on the internet.  For example, the Diaries of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), one of the primary sources that the Mootes used to such good effect in their book on the London plague, are now available in electronic format through Project Gutenberg, a digital library created in 1971 by volunteers committed to making books in the public domain freely available online.  Pepys was an energetic and talented man, who rose from modest beginnings to become the greatest naval administrator of the age, at a time when Britannia was just starting to rule the waves. The private diary that he kept from 1660 until 1669 is one of the most important primary sources for the English Restoration period, providing a combination of frank personal revelations and detailed eyewitness accounts of important public events, including the Great Plague of London.  In the early 18th century, Pepys’ manuscript diaries, along with the rest of his personal library, were donated to Magdalene College, Cambridge.  But the diaries were not published until almost a century later.  And it took yet another century before technological developments made it possible not only to produce a digital version of Pepys’ text but also to publish it online.

Pepys’ eyewitness account of daily life during the plague year records observations and details that would have otherwise been lost to posterity.  The following excerpt from a typical day (Friday, 5 January 1665/6), for example, recounts what he saw while riding in a coach on the way to an event in the capitol, in the period immediately after the plague had begun to subside:

And a delightfull thing it is to see the towne full of people again as now it is; and shops begin to open, though in many places seven or eight together, and more, all shut; but yet the towne is full, compared with what it used to be. I mean the City end; for Covent-Guarden and Westminster are yet very empty of people, no Court nor gentry being there.

This version of Pepys’ text comes from Phil Gyford’s groundbreaking blog, which was created in 2003 as a daily transcription of a single day’s entry from the Diary, using the copyright-free text made available online by Project GutenbergAlthough the British blogger who created this site is not a professional academic — Gyford prefers to call himself an “actor, modelmaker, illustrator and futurist” -– he has created a platform that has attracted the attention of scholars and researchers the world over.  Since 2012, when Gyford completed his transcription of Pepys’ Diary, numerous experts have provided annotations to, or written in-depth articles about selected topics brought up in individual diary entries.  (For example, clicking the hyperlinked term “the City” in the daily entry quoted above opens a box with an explanatory note about the history of this geographically delimited section within Greater London).  Thanks to such contributions, Gyford’s site continues to evolve, thereby providing a good example of the value added by open access electronic resources, which do not lock away the results of scholarly research behind the ‘pay walls’ erected by monopolistic publishers.

Researchers interested in a more literary treatment of the Great Plague would do well to consult A journal of the plague year: being observations or memorials, of the most remarkable occurrences, as well publick as private, which happened in London during the last great visitation in 1665..., available online both via paid subscription to Thomson Gale’s Eighteenth Century Collections Online and for free via Project Gutenberg.  This work was written by Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731), but published, without attribution (under the initials “H.F.”), in 1722.  The famed author of Robinson Crusoe (1719) was only about five years old when the Great Plague hit London, so he could not have remembered much of what he and his family had experienced at the time.  And yet Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year is described on its title page as a never-before-published memoir by “a citizen who continued all the while in London.” Even the year of publication raises suspicions about the historical authenticity of this self-proclaimed memoir, since the book appeared during a period of high public interest in plagues due to a recent outbreak in France.  In other words, what we see here is Defoe in his role as literary entrepreneur, rather than as autobiographer.  And yet Defoe’s masterly combination of first-person narration and realistic description (apparently based on substantial historical research), has embroiled scholars in a century-long debate over the question whether Journal of the Plague Year was, in fact, fiction or something more like history.

Perhaps the best answer to that question is provided by “H.F.,” the anonymous author of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, who concludes his “account of this calamitous year …with a coarse but sincere stanza…, which I placed at the end of my ordinary memorandums the same year they were written”:

A dreadful plague in London was
In the year sixty-five,
Which swept an hundred thousand souls
Away; yet I alive!

In the space of four short lines of verse, this brief meditation on mortality manages to encapsulate the complicated mixture of emotions that a survivor of a pandemic must have experienced upon learning the total death count.  A moment when the fleeting feeling of joy over one’s own salvation is leavened with grief, loss, and something even more insidious, viz., the nagging, unanswered question: Why was I spared, when so many were taken?

In other words, Defoe’s fictionalized account does not have to be true factually in order to capture and convey the experience of anyone who has ever lived through a catastrophic and traumatic event (such as the one we are currently in).  In that sense, A Journal of the Plague Year is as much of a must-read today as it was when first published.

Vignette and end engraving from A Journal of the Plague

Putting the ‘Global’ Back Into Global Pandemic, Part 2

Edited by Ernest Zitser, Ph.D., Librarian for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies, library liaison to the International Comparative Studies Program, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University.

This is the second in a series of blog posts on global pandemics by the staff of and/or subject specialists directly affiliated with Duke Libraries’ International and Area Studies DepartmentAs is the case with the first installment of the series, the librarians who contributed the following entries seek to offer suggestions for further reading, not a comprehensive bibliography on the topicFor additional resources (visual or textual, analog or digital) on plagues/infectious diseases/moral panics from around the world, please contact the appropriate IAS librarian. And if you have any recommendations of your own, please “reply” to this blog post below.

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Danette Pachtner
Librarian for Film, Video, & Digital Media and Women’s Studies

Unless you are a die-hard fan of the genre, it may be too soon in our experience of COVID-19 to seek out movies featuring infectious diseases that inspire moral panic or plagues that end the world. And even hardcore fans might want to take a break from perennial favorites, such as The Andromeda Strain (dir. Robert Wise, 1971, U.S), 28 Days Later (dir. Danny Boyle, 2002, U.K.), Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2006, U.S. & U.K.), Contagion (dir. Stephen Soderbergh, 2011, U.S.), or the cult classic (and my personal favorite) 12 Monkeys (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1995, U.S.).

However, as Duke’s Librarian for Film, Video, & Digital Media, it is my job to challenge patrons’ expectations of what/when/who is watchable by exposing them to visual resources that they might otherwise not know about or simply choose to ignore.  That is why I have compiled a short list of lesser known, but no-less-provocative foreign films that are all available, with English subtitles, in the Duke Libraries’ film collection. Precisely because of their variety of approaches—from bucolic (Wondrous Boccaccio ) to philosophical (The Seventh Seal) to apocalyptic (The Flu)—these films demonstrate that there are as many cinematic responses to pandemics as there are international movie makers and audiences. And these responses are as unique and culturally-mediated as the cinematic experience itself.

Wondrous Boccaccio

Wondrous Boccaccio (dirs. Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, 2015, Italy)
consumer streaming platforms | Lilly DVD 29001 | streaming in the Libraries [access requires Duke netid/password | licensed through 9-30-2020]
Based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s  Renaissance classic, The Decameron, this film follows the lives of ten young people who flee plague-ridden Florence in the mid-14th century, at the height of a pandemic that would ultimately kill over 30 million people, alter the European social structure, and influence the ideologies of those who survived. The Taviani brothers use Renaissance painting as a source of inspiration in their film. The cinematography evokes the vibrant colors of artists such as Botticelli in his scenes from The Decameron, as well as those of Masaccio and Giotto, moving from dark blacks in the plague-ridden city to vibrant colors of the countryside. The characters find refuge in an abandoned villa in the Tuscan hills and pass the time by telling each other tales of love, which range from the erotic to the tragic.

Image from film, Blindness
Blindness

Blindness (dir. Fernando Meirelles, 2008, Brazil & Canada)
consumer streaming platforms |Ford DVD #4943
Based on the bestselling novel by Nobel-Prize-winning Portuguese author, José Saramago, a city is ravaged by an epidemic of instant white blindness. Filmed on location in Brazil, Canada, and Uruguayalthough “the city” is never specifically identifiedthe story focuses on the behavior of  people who are losing their sight and are forced to survive in a sea of whiteness. The film depicts the ugliest side of human nature in a crisis; it offers a devastating portrait of institutional failure and government betrayal. The viewer can recognize chilling parallels with our current COVID-19 crisis, from the opportunism of corrupt governments to the neglect of the health-care system. Blindness is an end-of-civilization fable which is thought-provoking and topical in its indictment of declining social mores.

Image from film, The Hole
The Hole

The Hole (dir. Tsai Ming-liang, 1998, Taiwan) Lilly DVD 366
At the cusp of the 21st century, Taiwan experiences a torrential rain that brings with it a mysterious virus of epic proportions. Symptoms of “Taiwan Fever” include high fever and an acute sensitivity to light. Sections of the city are quarantined with essential services cut off by the government. The film is set in an apartment block in a quarantine zone where residents remain, against quarantine regulations. A plumber comes to fix a leak and instead leaves a gaping hole through which a tenant can see into his neighbor’s apartment below, and they develop a connection. The Hole presents a remarkable blend of aesthetic elements of science fiction, absurdism, and romantic fantasy, with musical sequences to boot. The film does not travel beyond the bounds of the apartment block. It explores the inward-looking aspects of an outbreakthe isolation it causes and how interactions with others become intensified.

Image from Seventh Seal
Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal (dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1957, Sweden) consumer streaming platforms |Lilly DVD 14846
Exhausted and embittered after a decade of battling in the Crusades, a knight returns home to a land ravaged by bubonic plague. He encounters Death on a desolate beach and challenges him to a fateful game of chess. Focusing on issues of man’s relationships with death, life and God, Bergman’s story transcends simple metaphor in this now classic work rich in philosophical allegory that remains especially relevant today.

The Flu

The Flu (dir. Kim Sung-su, 2013, S. Korea) consumer streaming platforms | Lilly DVD 26447
This South Korean medical disaster film tells the story of panic, despair, and the desperate struggle for survival in a city that has been quarantined after the outbreak of a deadly virus.  The virus in this scenario is H5N1 influenza (commonly known as the ‘bird flu’) introduced by illegal immigrants from Hong Kong, arriving in a shipping container.  In order to prevent the spread of the virus worldwide, the government issues a national disaster and orders a city-wide lockdown. Citizens stock up on daily necessities, starting riots as mistrust of each other builds. In the meantime, politicians’ quarrels, powerless governments, and unwelcome U.S. involvement force the viewer to consider eventualities that might be even more frightening than a virus attack. Sound familiar?

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Miree Ku
Korean Studies Librarian

Aside from scientific articles in medical journals about the most recent outbreaks of new strains of influenza and coronavirus, the issue of pandemics on the Korean peninsula has only recently attracted the attention from the English-speaking scholarly community.  That is why most of the publications on the topic are currently in the form of scholarly journal articles, dissertations, and theses, rather than academic monographs.

Korea Journal

For example, in 2011, Chaisung Lim, then Assistant Professor at the Institute for Japanese Studies at Korea’s Seoul National University, published an article on “The Pandemic of the Spanish Influenza in Colonial Korea” in the Korea Journal, a quarterly academic publication founded in 1961 with the goal of promoting Korean Studies around the world.  By examining the Spanish influenza, which was widespread during 1918-1921, Lim sought “to elucidate the structural aspect of disease and death in colonial Korea” and to “explor[e] its socioeconomic effects.” The author focused on the public health policies adopted by the Government-General of Korea (GGK)—the Japanese colonial ruling organ from 1910 to 1945—and the degree to which these measures contributed to the mortality of the general population.  He further probed how GGK’s policies were differentiated by ethnic group (ethnic Koreans and Japanese), as well as how much access each ethnic group had to measures for medical treatment. His research revealed a significant difference in the fatality rates between the two ethnic groups—a conclusion that reminds me of the differential effects of COVID-19 on the health of racial and ethnic minority groups in the US. Interestingly, Lim’s study also posited that the social frustration caused by the pandemic and the ensuing economic hardships served as a source for the so-called March First Independence Movement in 1919, one of the earliest public displays of Korean resistance to Japanese colonial rule.

Pathogens from the Pulpit in DukeSpace

Another example of English-language research on the same topic comes from somewhere even closer to home.  Two years ago, a Duke undergraduate student named Alan Ko asked me, in my capacity as the Korean Studies Librarian, to assist him with his research on the Spanish flu during the colonial period in Korea.  He was then in the process of working on an honors thesis in the History Department and was looking for Korean-language primary sources.  Among other things, I suggested that he take a look at contemporary Korean newspapers, such as those made available in e-format by several different Korean newspaper archives.  He used those sources to examine how Western missionaries in colonial Korea perceived disease among the local populace and how public health efforts correlated with certain preconceived cultural and social factors.  Needless to say, it was very gratifying to learn that Alan not only went to graduate with honors, but that his honors thesis, “Pathogens from the Pulpit: Missionary Perceptions of Disease in Colonial Korea (1910-1940),” was deposited in DukeSpace—Duke Libraries’ online repository—thereby making the results of his research freely-available to other scholars.  It was also nice to see that the author publicly acknowledged the support that he received from Duke’s librarians, who not only helped him to locate “appropriate Korean language sources,” but also cheered him on with tea and pistachios, while he edited his thesis, during “work-study shifts” at Perkins library.

Plagues/infectious diseases/moral panics have also been a feature in Korean popular culture, appearing in several famous films, dramas, and novels.  One of the most recent films on the topic (The Flu) has already been mentioned above, in Danette Pachtner’s post on pandemics in international cinema.  Here, I would like to draw attention to another movie: “The Host,” a feature film directed by Bong Joon-ho—the Academy Award-winning director of The Parasite (2019).  Both The Host (2006) and The Flu (2013) were inspired by the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic of 2002-2004, which was caused by a different, but related strain of coronavirus than COVID-19.  Both films describe virus-related epidemic/pandemic situations and deal with the interplay between political and environmental issues. But only The Host has an American villain who is even more evil than the virus-spewing monster that he inadvertently unleashes upon the world.

The Host

The plot of The Host begins in a laboratory on an American military base in South Korea.  An American scientist working with dangerous chemicals orders his Korean colleague to dump them into the Han River, saying “who cares” and “it can’t really hurt anyone.”  Of course, turns out it can. The movie goes on to trace the havoc wreaked on Korea by a river-dwelling mutant created by the illegal dumping of chemical waste, as that monster begins to spread a deadly new virus, which can be transmitted (SARS-like) to humans through animals.

Despite its fantastic premise, this mash-up of medical disaster and monster movies actually has a basis in reality. In fact, the film was inspired by an incident from 2000 in which a Korean mortician working for the U.S. military in Seoul was ordered to dump a large amount of formaldehyde down the drain.  And, unfortunately, scenes from the movie have become an all-too-real part of our daily routine in the age of COVID-19.  In an eerie foreshadowing of the paranoia and anti-Asian racism that has attended the outbreak of the latest coronavirus pandemic, the movie depicts a world in which people who wear facemasks are so afraid of viral transmission that they come to suspect one another of deliberately, if not maliciously, hiding symptoms of the disease. The movie also highlights, if only by negative example, the critical role that the government can play during a national health crisis, portraying the South Korean government as bureaucratic, inept, and essentially uncaring.  Surely, there is no country in the world today where the government can be described in such unflattering terms. Now that is pure fantasy!

Putting the ‘Global’ Back Into Global Pandemic, Part I

This is the first in a series of blog posts on global pandemics, edited by Ernest Zitser, Ph.D., Librarian for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies, library liaison to the International Comparative Studies Program, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University.

Pandemics, by their very definition (< Greek pandēmos = pan ‘all’ + dēmos ‘people’), affect everyone in the entire world.  They expose the permeability of border walls and remind us of the invented nature of all geopolitical boundaries.  They also provide us with an opportunity to learn something about the lived experience of people from around the globe, those external ‘others’ whom it is all-too-easy to stereotype as strange, exotic, or dangerous.  That is, pandemics invite us not merely to recognize the humanity of, and suffer alongside perfect ‘strangers,’ who speak ‘foreign’ languages and write in ‘squiggly’ scripts, but actually to draw lessons from the way human communities in other parts of the world are dealing and/or have dealt with the same issues as us.

In order to help foster a more informed and compassionate approach to the current global health crisis, the subject specialists of Duke Libraries’ International and Area Studies Department have decided to devote a series of blog posts to the topic of plagues, epidemics, and pandemics in each of the world regions for which they collect materials and about which they offer reference and library instruction.  Our goal is not to provide exhaustive coverage of the topic, but merely to suggest one or two resources—preferably those available online and in English—that each subject specialist has found particularly meaningful or useful in helping him or her to understand the role that infectious diseases have played in the countries, continents, and world areas for which s/he is responsible.

If you would like to get more information about a particular world region or recommendations for additional resources on the topic, please feel free to contact the appropriate IAS librarian.  And do let us know if you have your own recommendations!  Simply leave a reply in the “Comment Section” at the end of this blog post.

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Holly Ackerman
Head, International & Area Studies Dept. and Librarian for Latin American, Iberian and Latino/a Studies

When the editors of the IAS blog proposed the idea of publishing a series of posts recommending readable, digitally-available, English-language resources on plagues/infectious diseases/moral panics in world literature and/or film, I approached the selection in my role as the Department Head, responsible for covering many world areas. I tried to recall a popular history with global reach that dealt both with politics and medicine. I wanted something that was deeply researched but also genuinely engaging.  And, perhaps not surprisingly, one that would also highlight the other role that I play in IAS, namely, the Librarian for Latin American, Iberian and Latino/a Studies.

John Barry’s panoramic history of the so-called “Spanish” Flu of 1918—the ruthless influenza pandemic that is estimated to have claimed 50-100 million lives (adjusted for population, that would equal 220 million to 430 million people today)—came immediately to mind. I had read it back in 2004 when it first came out and was that year’s winner of the National Academies of Sciences prize for the best book on science or medicine. A re-read this week confirmed its currency.

Barry, a professor at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, seems to be speaking directly to the present when he says that medicine and politics cannot be separated in a pandemic and one is as significant as the other. He describes political leaders in 1918 lying to the public about the severity of the situation in order to maintain the World War I economy and their control over the electorate.  And also of blaming a particular foreign country for being the source of the outbreak, in an effort to shift the blame for their handling of the public health crisis onto a foreign country.  Sound familiar?

The good news in Barry’s sweeping account is the role of medicine in developing vaccines, public health officials broadcasting simple preventive measures (posters read, “Wear a mask; Save your life), the rise of “modern” medical schools such as Johns Hopkins, and the organization of the Red Cross. He offers case examples of communities that suppressed the disease (e.g., San Francisco) and those that failed to do so (e.g., Philadelphia). The “winners” combined truthful leaders, inspiration in public messaging, and stern demand for compliance with best practices. The “losers” combined denial with blaming (calling it “just a common cold” as corpses outnumbered coffins, attacking immigrants as “natural carriers,” and demanding legislation for mass euthanasia of domestic pets).

Anyone wanting to see how pandemics change history will find much to admire here.

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Sean Swanick
Librarian for Middle East and Islamic Studies

The issue of plague in the Middle East context has not received the scholarly attention that it deserves.  However, there are some excellent books and works-in-progress out there for anyone interested in the topic.

For example, Christopher S. Rose, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Historical Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, has written an article about how the Egyptian government handled a pandemic in the past, at least partly in order to contextualize the criticism of the way the current Egyptian government has handled the COVID-19 crisis. Rose’s article has been accepted by the Journal of World History, but is unlikely to appear in print until 2021; and Rose’s book will not be out until sometime in the next decade.  That is why it is so great that this young scholar is willing to share some of the results of his research in a WordPress blog post on The “Spanish Flu” in Egypt. Rose argues that “for most of the war, civilian medical needs were a far distant second behind military medical needs” of the colonial occupiers of this strategically-important British protectorate. Consequently, when the pandemic hit, the Anglo-Egyptian government was “caught with its pants down”: hospitals and clinics were overwhelmed; physicians (who were mostly Egyptians, Greek, or Syrian) were overworked; agricultural production (on which the entire economy depended) ceased; religious services were suspended; and at least 130,000 people died. The fact that the flu pandemic—the worst health crisis during World War I in Egypt—came after the end of the war made everything worse. Rose argues that this was one of the “non-political events” in early 20th-century Egyptian history that prepared the ground for the political changes in the years that followed the pandemic.

An even earlier period of environmental, epidemiological, and political history of what is today’s Middle East is the subject of Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World: the Ottoman Experience, 1347-1600, by Nükhet Varlik of Rutgers University and the University of South Carolina.  This thorough, ground-breaking book explores the impact of plagues on Ottoman lands beginning with the Black Death, which ravaged the world from 1347 to 1351. One aspect of the work I found particularly interesting is the development of public health vis-à-vis the state. The Ottoman state was very conscious of the need for clean drinking water, hence the development of fountains throughout the empire—including the imperial capital, Istanbul—and the imperative to bury those who had died of the disease outside the city walls, so as to ensure that as much clean air as possible circulated within the city. Varlik’s book is not only well-researched, but also provides fascinating historical insight into a topic that has contemporary resonance, not least because of its insistence on the Western origins of the Plague, as well as its discussion of the pandemic’s effect both on physical bodies and the body politic.  After reading this book, you might also want to visit the Ottoman History Podcast for a discussion on Plague in the Ottoman World, featuring Nükhet Varlık, Yaron Ayalon, Orhan Pamuk, Lori Jones, Valentina Pugliano, and Edna Bonhomme.

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Luo Zhou
Chinese Studies Librarian

William C. Summer’s book on the Great Manchurian Plague of 1910-1911, will be an enlightening (and inspiring) read for today’s audience. The Manchuria (Northeast China) plague, which broke out in fall 1910 and killed more than 60,000 people by spring 1911, was caused by transmission from marmots to humans. It spread quickly both among the native Chinese inhabitants and the Russian, Japanese, American, and British diplomats and administrators stationed in Manchuria, a new center of global transportation and fur trade that was of strategic importance to the world powers.  Summer demonstrates that geopolitics—China’s political weakness and Russian and Japanese colonial aspirations in the region—shaped how the plague was contained and managed.  He also highlights the work of individual medical practitioners, such as Dr. Wu Lien-teh—the first medical student of Chinese descent to study at the University of Cambridge—who led the Chinese effort to end the plague.  Dr. Wu promoted the use of cloth facial masks, which were to be worn by doctors, nurses, patients, and anyone else whenever possible: the very first time that such an epidemic containment measure had been attempted and proven effective in the field.  In the end, the “Great Manchurian Plague” highlighted the importance of multinational medical responses and helped to promote the (eventual) establishment of the World Health Organization – an unintended, but welcome by-product of the epidemic.

In order to get a sense of the lived experience of COVID-19 in China today, it is best to turn to non-traditional outlets (e.g. WeChat, Weibo, Twitter, Facebook) and freely available electronic resources.  For example, in The Virus Diaries (疫境日記), a 10-minute YouTube video (in Cantonese, with English subtitles), from late January 2020, ordinary citizens of Hong Kong share their experiences of life during quarantine.

For mainland China, the most obvious (and most controversial) choice is Wuhan Diary (武汉日记) by Fang Fang (方方), the pen name of Wang Fang (汪芳; born 11 May 1955), an award-winning, contemporary Chinese writer. Although this fascinating, first-person account of life at the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis is now available as an e-book, in an English-language translation by Michael Berry, Director of UCLA Center of China Studies, it began life as a series of posts on Fang’s social media page.  The author’s regular, daily entries on WeChat—a Chinese multi-purpose messaging, social media, and mobile payment app—offered her personal (and mildly critical) comments on the effects of the deadly epidemic during the government-imposed lockdown. Almost as soon as they were posted, however, each of Fang’s entries about the effect of the coronavirus on Chinese society was consistently deleted by China’s internet censors.  But usually not before the latest entry had itself gone viral, having been shared by millions of WeChatters, both within China and abroad.  That has not slowed Chinese government efforts to stop the spread of the virtual virus unleashed by Fang Fang’s media posts.In an effort to dissuade overseas readers from purchasing the diary, the Global Times—an English-language newspaper published under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily—claimed (falsely) that Fang “fell from grace in late March when many netizens and scholars began to question the authenticity of her diary.”  As if anticipating such politically motivated criticism, the last entry in Fang’s diary was entitled: “There is no tension between me and my country” (我和国家之间没有张力).