Reviewed: December, 2003
Mounted: January 12, 2004
By Pamela Carter
This website is a companion to PBS’s American Experience episode, Influenza 1918: “…the worst epidemic the United States has ever known.” The photograph on the first page, which commands most of the screen, shockingly depicts row after row of patients lying on cots. At the top of the page, smaller images capture a row of mask-covered faces. From this first page, viewers may choose from the following headings: “The Film and More,” “Special Features,” “Timeline,” “Maps,” “People and Events,” and “Teacher’s Guide.” Small photographs of the pandemic’s victims or effects appear at the top of the page as the viewer’s pointer moves over the headings.
The subsequent pages are less graphically sobering, with easy-to-read plain black text set against a white background. Photographic images are minimally presented in terms of their size, number, and prominence on the page. They are not captioned or individually cited.
The text is very well written and fully draws the viewer into the drama and mystery of the pandemic. It puts the pandemic into perspective by stating that if the death toll of the 1918 flu was adjusted for today’s population, close to one million and a half people would have died in a matter of months. The site contains links for purchasing the film and to local PBS stations to inquire about rebroadcasts. (No current rebroadcasts were found, but given the current influenza scare, perhaps this may change.) However, a full transcript of the film is presented within the site itself.
Additional material on the site includes excerpts, available both as transcripts and audio clips, from interviews with public health or history "experts" consulted for the film as well as an additional interview which provides some answers to whether or not such a flu pandemic could happen again. These interviews, along with various essays, such as “Placing the Blame” in the People and Places section, also provide significant contextual information on the history of public health and social welfare in the U.S. The narrative provides contemporary context information on World War I, and “Placing the Blame” discusses public and even official suspicion of the virus’s spread as the work of the enemy. Given that the pandemic and the War were so inextricably bound, however, events of the Great War, other than its end, are disorientingly missing from the timeline. The transcript of the film also has very short but gripping quotations from oral histories with survivors of 1918. For example, a young boy knocked on his friends’ doors after the sudden end of the pandemic. A friend’s family member, he recalled,
would open the door just a little bit and says, "No, Jimmy's not here" or "Frankie's not here." or, and, "Where is he?" "Let your mother tell you." They wouldn't tell me, "Let your mother tell you." I was a pretty lonely kid at the time because these were my friends that I played with all those years, and went to school with and when I lost them, why, my whole world changed.
I was disappointed not to find these oral histories presented on the interview page, which had only the “experts’’ voices.
The primary audience for the site is adult. For younger viewers, there is a button labeled ‘Kids’ that takes the viewer to the opening page of American Experience’s online magazine for kids. The current issue (in mid-November) contains the headline that school’s out and it’s time for summer vacation and focuses on summer travel. There is an archive for past issues, but none of these is about the flu pandemic. However, in going to the general PBS site and doing a search on “Influenza” under PBS Kids, one finds a site entitled, “PBS Kids: Learning Adventures in Citizenship: Epidemic!,” which includes activities for kids, a teacher’s curriculum, and references to the flu as well as other epidemics. There is also a “Cool Facts About the Flu” presentation on the website of the PBS kids’ show, Zoom, with interactive activities and a study of Zoom viewers and the flu. It is unfortunate the American Experience's influenza website does not take advantage of these PBS resources by providing direct links to these pages. They would be very relevant for kids, as well as for teachers to supplement the three classroom activities given on the American Experience influenza site.
Links within the site, due to vague or opaque headings can be confusing. Links to the homepages of national and international health agencies, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and another PBS site, “The Great War,” are provided along with a brief bibliography.
Overall, this is a visually uncomplicated while technologically sophisticated site that contains arresting content along with mousovers, real audio, and a changing map showing the spread of the 1918 influenza virus across the U.S. It contains the entire transcript of the film plus essays, interviews, and correspondence that provide an effective illustration of the horror and the circumstances and science behind the spread of the virus.
Given that the film is only an hour-long program, its website is not large and limits the use of photos. However, it has extremely captivating text. A wide range of the American authorities’ and the public’s experience of this pandemic is effectively told. Related post-1918 events could have been expanded. The site states that the pandemic was forgotten almost as suddenly as it arrived. But with such high numbers of cases, there must have been large numbers of post-flu respiratory complications, cases of which joined the ranks of the significant health migrations that took place from all parts of the U.S. to dryer climates, such as Arizona or New Mexico. The site also devotes considerable attention to subsequent flu epidemics and the current scientific research, through early 1998, that could answer the question of if and how such an influenza pandemic could happen again. Given the rapid rate of scientific discoveries and the appearance of new viruses, this part of the site could benefit from frequent updating.
The site appears to maintain historical accuracy. It does contain some typos, including incorrect dates (1942 to 1959) on the browser subject header for the timeline and an omitted word on the feedback form.
Influenza 1918 draws heavily from medical experts, especially Dr. Shirley Fannin, epidemiologist, and Dr. Barbara Rosencrantz of the Harvard School of Public Health, along with former professor of American Studies and author of America’s Forgotten Pandemic, Dr. Alfred Crosby. WGBH, the public television station in Boston, presented the film and the site. Contact information for the station is given but is rather difficult to find on the opening page, which is not easily linked once the visitor has exited from it. This information notes that letters to producers and consultants will be forwarded by the station, and there is also a feedback form.
Original posting was in 1998 and apparently was not updated since 2000-2002, the last copyright for updates. Links worked, with the exception of a link to Frequently Asked Questions, which on the second try, brought up a form for contacting the web administrator about the problem.
Since the site has been up for five years already, it appears that it will still be running in another year. The science information could become dated, but it seems the site has presented information in such a way to try to make that possibility as least likely as possible. For example, direct references to contemporary serious, mysterious illnesses are not made, but links are provided to the home pages of the CDC or WHO, which features these threats in constantly-updated headlines.
Value Added Features
Indices and searches are provided for the larger PBS and American Experience sites. An abstract of the pandemic, but not of how it is presented in the film, is given.
Technical information on browsers and ADA compliance, for example, is not given on this site. It may be on the larger American Experience site but appears to be given episode by episode. The PBS general site suggests using Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer and gives ideals for font sizes (generally not larger than 12 pt.) in each, stating that trying to make the font larger could result in distortion of images. Navigation headings are vaguely written, usually without dropdown menus, but are generally easy to find. Special accommodations for printing are not given, and I received the message “an error has occurred with the scripts on this page” when I unsuccessfully tried to print some pages.
Aesthetics/Visual Clarity and Appeal
The strongest appeal in this site is the text content itself, rather than visual appeal, with the exception of the haunting opening page. In general the site is visually clear and cohesive.
Overall Impression of the site
Interpretation of materials
There are original essays on the site as well as a transcript of the film and excerpts of interviews with public health experts, which includes their interpretation of events. The site does not make clear who the authors of the essays are. No peer reviews of the site/interpretations are given. Limited additional sources are given. The site is accessible to a non-academic public, but there is some medical jargon and unclear references to folk remedies.
Primary source documents
Presentation of primary sources is limited to some photographs and a letter from one of the frontline doctors. Photographs do not have captions and sources for individual photos are not listed, unlike more recent PBS sites. Repositories for the photos as a whole are listed in the webpage credits, but specific collections are generally not named. The PBS site as a whole outlines a strong copyright policy by which its staff must abide, as well as contact information for users to address suspected copyright infringement by PBS. This information also suggests that users contact the owners of the material for reproductions and permissions. It is not clear what would be the procedure for earlier sites like Influenza 1918 that do not list individual photo credits.
A curriculum with three suggested activities is provided for teachers. The site does not contain interactive learning materials or showcase or link to student work. It misses the opportunity to link to other PBS sites with interactive activities related to influenza and general epidemics.
Promotion of a Community of Interest
Other than oral history interview segments, the sources of which are unclear, there does not seem to be creation of social or academic networks.
Point Assessment for Influenza 1918
(more information on PHRC's rating system is available)
|Permanence and Timeliness||12/15|
|Value Added Features||10/15|
Public History Specific Criteria
|Interpretation of Materials||16/40|
|Primary Source Documents||4/20|
|Promotion of a Community of Interest||5/20|
Total: 104 points -- 3 Earths
Pamela Carter (firstname.lastname@example.org) just completed her M.A. in History/Public History (Community History concentration) at Arizona State University. Her thesis was entitled, “Helping the Health Seekers: A History of Development at Arizona’s Desert Mission, 1921-1949.” Prior to starting graduate school, she did museum and archeology work for the National Park Service in Alaska.
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