In 1924 Encyclopædia Britannica published a two-volume history of the 20th century thus far. More than 80 authors—professors and politicians, soldiers and scientists—contributed chapters to These Eventful Years: The Twentieth Century in the Making as Told by Many of Its Makers. But the book’s sprawling 1,300 pages never mention the catastrophic influenza pandemic that had killed between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide only five years earlier. And many history textbooks in subsequent decades just note the 1918–1919 flu pandemic as an aside when discussing World War I, if at all.

Until quite recently, the pandemic had remained strangely faint in the public sphere, compared with other momentous events of the 20th century. Monuments and federal holidays commemorate people lost in both World Wars. Many popular museums and blockbuster movies recount the sinking of the Titanic and the Apollo moon missions. But the same cannot be said for the 1918 flu (often referred to as the “Spanish flu” because of mistaken beliefs about its origin). Of course, the pandemic was not forgotten entirely: many today are aware it occurred or even know of ancestors who succumbed to it. But the event seems to form a disproportionately small part of our society’s narrative of its past.

That such a devastating pandemic could become so dormant in our collective memory puzzled Guy Beiner, a historian at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, prompting him to spend decades researching its legacy. “We have an illusion. We believe that if an event is historically significant—if it affects many, many people, if it changes the fate of countries in the world, if many people die from it—then it will inevitably be remembered,” he says. “That’s not at all how it works. And the Spanish flu is exactly a warning for that.”

Beiner began collecting books about the 1918 pandemic 20 years ago. For a long time, they emerged in a very slow trickle. But now, as the world reckons with COVID-19, he can hardly keep up with the outpouring of both nonfiction and fiction. “I have, in my office, three stacks [of novels] waiting for me—huge stacks,” he says. Previously a niche topic even among historians, the 1918 flu has been compared to the current pandemic in terms of the fatality rate, apparent effectiveness of masks and social distancing, and potential economic impact. In March 2020 alone, the English-language Wikipedia page for “Spanish flu” garnered more than 8.2 million views, shattering the pre-2020 monthly record of 144,000 views during the pandemic’s 2018 centennial.

The worldwide “forgetting” and ongoing rediscovery of the 1918 flu provide a window into the science of collective memory. And they offer tantalizing clues about how future generations might regard the current coronavirus pandemic.

What Is Collective Memory?

Pioneered in the early 20th century by sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, the study of collective memory has garnered widespread interest across the social sciences in recent years. Henry Roediger III, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis, defines collective memory as “how we remember ourselves as part of a group ... that forms our identity.” Groups such as nations, political parties, religious communities and sports fandoms, he explains, weave events from their collective past into a narrative that reinforces individual members’ shared sense of who they are.

Researchers often use open-recall methods to study groups’ collective memory of well-known historical events. For example, Roediger and his colleague James Wertsch, also at Washington University in St. Louis, asked Americans and Russians to name the 10 most important events of World War II. Americans most often cited the attack on Pearl Harbor, the atomic bombings of Japan and the Holocaust. Most Russians highlighted the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk and the Siege of Leningrad. The only event that appeared on both lists was D-Day, known in Russia as “the opening of the second front.” The events most strongly recalled by people in each country, the researchers say, reflect that nation’s narrative framework, or schema, for remembering the past.

Seattle policemen wearing protective gauze face masks during the influenza epidemic of 1918. Credit: Time Life Pictures, National Archives and The LIFE Picture Collection Getty Images

Such a study could indicate what specifics about the 1918 flu people are aware of. But “as far as I know, nobody’s done it,” Wertsch says. “If you did a survey, you would come up with nothing.” Even in making comparisons with COVID-19, he says, few individuals can cite significant details about the earlier pandemic. Wertsch notes that collective memory seems to depend largely on narratives with a clear beginning, middle and end. “If there’s one cognitive instrument that is the most ubiquitous, most natural..., it’s narrative,” he says. “Not all human cultures have arithmetic number systems, let alone calculus. But all human cultures use narratives.”

For the countries engaged in World War I, the global conflict provided a clear narrative arc, replete with heroes and villains, victories and defeats. From this standpoint, an invisible enemy such as the 1918 flu made little narrative sense. It had no clear origin, killed otherwise healthy people in multiple waves and slinked away without being understood. Scientists at the time did not even know that a virus, not a bacterium, caused the flu. “The doctors had shame,” Beiner says. “It was a huge failure of modern medicine.” Without a narrative schema to anchor it, the pandemic all but vanished from public discourse soon after it ended.

Unlike the 1918 flu, so far COVID-19 has no massive war with which to compete in memory. And science’s understanding of viruses has dramatically improved in the past century (although many COVID-19 mysteries remain). Yet, in some ways, not much has changed since our ancestors’ pandemic. “Even if our experiment in lockdown, in its sheer scale and strictness, is unprecedented, we’re thinking in the same way as they were” more than 100 years ago, says Laura Spinney, author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World. “Until we have a vaccine, our main way of protecting ourselves is social distancing, and that was their main way of protecting themselves then.” The current controversy about masks has a precedent, too: for instance, nearly 2,000 people attended a 1919 meeting of the Anti-Mask League of San Francisco.

Research on how political polarization affects the formation of collective memories is scant. Roediger and Wertsch suspect that divisiveness does increase the salience of an individual’s recollection of an event. But Wertsch questions this effect’s potential influence on a cohesive collective memory of the current pandemic. “The virus is just not an ideal character for an ideal narrative,” he says.

Even the race to develop and distribute a vaccine is unlikely to yield a strong narrative, according to Wertsch. “It’s conceivable that we might see a hero scientist emerge like Louis Pasteur in the 19th century,” he says. “But it’s noteworthy that our memory of him is precisely of him and not any particular ... epidemic.” Still, with or without a strong story, COVID-19 will be much better documented than the pandemic that occurred 100 years ago. Could exhaustive media coverage strengthen a collective memory?

Media and Imagery

While the 1918 flu raged, newspapers and magazines did cover it extensively. Meg Spratt, a lecturer in communication at the University of Washington, notes that American press coverage of the pandemic prominently featured “biomilitaristic” language. Many articles framed the situation as a battle between humans (mainly government officials) and the disease. But the press of the day published “very little on the experience of the victims and survivors themselves,” Spratt says. Instead coverage emphasized experts and authority—almost exclusively white men. Spratt also saw evidence that World War I overshadowed the disease. “When influenza deaths surpassed war deaths in Fall of 1918, The New York Times ran the news as a small story on an inside page,” she wrote in a 2001 paper on the topic.

Spratt perceives certain parallels between the coverage of the 1918 flu and that of COVID-19. “You still have this emphasis on the public health experts trying to come up with some sort of policies or recommendations to protect people,” she says. “But today there seems to be this amplification. I think that comes partly from the different media technology we have.” Since the Internet and social media have enabled ordinary citizens to publicly document their lives during the pandemic, Spratt says, “there’s going to be richer material about what people actually went through.” In this way, from firsthand accounts of essential workers to reports on racial and socioeconomic disparities in COVID-19’s impacts, the media landscape of 2020 is providing a more complete picture of the current pandemic.

Photographs, too, could help to build a collective memory of COVID-19. Psychological research has consistently shown that humans’ visual memory is much stronger than our recollection of words or abstract ideas. Thus, widely distributed images can form the backbone of a collective memory, Roediger says. History is filled with such iconic imagery: American troops raising the flag on Iwo Jima; the Twin Towers collapsing on 9/11; Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem. But “the cameras tend to stop at the door of the sick room or of the hospital,” Spinney notes. “We tend to not go into that space.” Few images show the dramatic symptoms, such as a blue face and bleeding from the ears, suffered by many who contracted the 1918 flu. Similarly, striking photographs that could reinforce collective memory are scarce in today’s news reports of hospitals running over capacity, shortages of personal protective equipment and high death tolls in nursing homes.

Even if no iconic images emerge, though, individuals will certainly remember how COVID-19 affected them and their families. The same was true for the 1918 flu: in 1974 historian Richard Collier published a book compiling the personal recollections of more than 1,700 people from around the world. But as historians have discovered, collective memories ebb and flow according to the social context of the time.

Cycles of Remembering and Forgetting

This year is not the first time a new pandemic has prompted reexamination of the one in 1918. The 20th century saw two more flu pandemics, which occurred in 1957 and 1968. In both cases, “suddenly the memory of the Great Flu reoccurs,” Beiner says. “People begin looking for this precedent; people begin looking for the cure.” Likewise, during the avian flu scare in 2005 and the swine flu pandemic in 2009, Google searches worldwide for “Spanish flu” spiked (though both increases were dwarfed by the one that occurred this past March). All the while a growing body of historical research has been fleshing out the story of the 1918 flu, providing the foundation for a significant resurgence of its memory in the public sphere.

Beiner sees the current crisis as a tipping point in how society will remember the 1918 pandemic. Among his collection of books about it, he says, “none of them became the big novel, a book which everybody is reading. I think this might change now.” Beiner predicts COVID-19 will inspire a best-selling novel or major film centered on the flu of 1918. This type of cultural landmark could serve as an anchor for public discourse about the event, fortifying the present wave of social remembering.

As for COVID-19, Beiner anticipates similar “surges in memory and then lapses in memory” over the coming decades. “We’re going to have a complicated story. And it’s going to always be a dialectic, dynamic forgetting and remembering working together—what happens in the public sphere and what’s relegated to the private sphere,” he says.

A stronger collective memory of the 1918 flu could also help create the narrative schema necessary to maintain COVID-19’s public profile after today’s pandemic ends. If monuments, museums or commemorations are established, they, too, would provide a social framework for continuing discussion of the current crisis. In fact, the New-York Historical Society is already collecting items related to COVID-19 for a future exhibit. “I think there will be much more impact this time because now we are aware that we didn’t remember, in a public way, the Spanish flu of 1918,” says José Sobral, a social anthropologist at the University of Lisbon.

Wertsch is not so sure. “In a matter of a few years,” he says, “we might forget this.” He suspects that how the coronavirus pandemic ends—and whether it is followed by other pandemics—will determine whether nations can weave a narrative about COVID-19 as part of a collective memory. “It’s only by knowing the end,” Wertsch says, “that we know the meaning of the beginning and the middle.”

Do you have ancestors who were affected by the 1918 pandemic? If so, we’d like to hear from you to keep the memory alive. Send a message to the editors at editors@sciam.com telling the story of those ancestors—or let us know how COVID-19 has impacted your life.

Read more about the coronavirus outbreak from Scientific American here. And read coverage from our international network of magazines here.