Wednesday, May 18, 2016


2 November 1918
Click any image for a larger version

"The 1918-19 Spanish flu epidemic killed over 40 million people worldwide, and 20,000 in Ireland. This haunting cartoon appeared in the Irish Weekly Independent of 2 November 1918, just as Europe was experiencing its second wave of the disease."

When we think of, say, the Revolutionary Period we are inclined to think of individual events, like the 1916 Rising, or the 1918 elections, or the Civil War. But the actors in these events are operating on a wider canvas and, if we think of this at all, we are often inclined to paint in that canvas, drawing on that of our own times. But things were different then. Dublin had the worst slums in Europe and in 1918 there was another enemy besides the obvious - the Spanish Flu.

Mr "Flu" - "So sorry old chap to take you unawares.
22 February 1919

The cartoons and quote above are from The Revolution Papers 17 May 2016 No.20. The original cartoons are by Gordon Brewster, in whom I have an interest.

Post 1919 the flu epidemic seems to have subsided and gone away. But the scale of worldwide devastation caused by the epidemic provoked some frantic research attempting to identify the cause, and, if a virus, isolate it and produce a vaccine.

There was a constant stream of claims of success being made by researchers during 1920s and beginning of the 1930s.

17 February 1927

Meanwhile it would appear that the Irish Health Authorities felt they had adequate safeguards in place against any viral invader.

16 February 1929

Nevertheless the search continued to find the pesky flu virus though it was hardly as straighforward as the butterfly netting technique above might suggest.

"Professor Isadore Falk of Chicago University
claims to have discovered the germ of influenza."
19 December 1929

In late 1929 Professor Isadora Falk, claimed to have isolated the virus and his claims received worldwide publicity. I'm not sure if they convinced Gordon but his viruses of 1919 and 1929 bear a very strong resemblance to each other.

If the artist's pen could shape reality, Gordon here would have really got his man.

Unfortunately, beyond his initial claims, I don't see any reference, in what few modern sources I could find, to Falk as the discoverer of the virus. Conclusive claims seem to date from a few years later.

However, an artist rarely lets go of a character once portrayed and Gordon pressed a slightly more sophisticated version of the Grim Reaper into service in this period in warning about the historically significant number of road deaths in Britain at the time..

21 April 1928

"At the battle of Waterloo two thousand British Officers and men lost their lives; the allied armies left a total of four thousand two hundred of their troops on the field. This falls short by eleven hundred of the death roll in Great Britain through traffic accidents in twelve months".

My thanks to Felix M Larkin for keeping me up to date on Gordon's appearances in the Revolutionary Papers and to the National Library of Ireland for permission to reproduce the later cartoons. You can see the NLI's full collection of Gordon's cartoons (1922-1932) here.

Wiki on the Spanish Flu Epidemic

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