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Luminaries of Fin-de-si;cle France: Aesthetic, Scientific and Medical Cultures of Light, c. 1880-1930

Tuesday, 17th November (Week 7)
5.00 pm – Ramphal Building Room R.014
Michael Bresalier (Bristol)
LUses of a Pandemic: Forging the Identities of “Spanish Flu” and Virus Research in Interwar Britain
This paper challenges the thesis that the 1918-19 "Spanish Flu" was a "forgotten pandemic" in Britain. First posited by Alfred Crosby, the thesis has become a key frame through which the history of the pandemic has been understood. An historical consensus holds that, in Britain, as in most other major industrial nations, the pandemic left few lasting legacies in government, medicine and public health, and in perceptions and understandings of flu's identity. Tracing the aftermath of the pandemic in interwar Britain, this paper contends that such accounts have ignored its legacies in medical science, which emerged as a key institution for understanding and managing threats to modern life and a decisive arena through which problems raised by the pandemic were contested and kept alive. Concentrating on the work of the Medical Research Council, the paper examines how the pandemic was used, rhetorically and as a research problem, in plans to scientifically modernize British medicine. This aspect of the pandemic's legacy is best demonstrated by MRC efforts to establish virus research as a new science of disease. A strategic response to problems crystallized by the pandemic, the construction of the new field entailed redefining flu as a "virus disease." It was in this context that the identities of the pandemic and of virus research were first forged. By highlighting how the pandemic was used in the justification and making of virus research in Britain, this paper points to larger questions about historical approaches to its legacies and the ways in which it is framed and mobilized as an historical resource.

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