Spanish Flu: the pandemic inspiration for the Florence Nightingale Museum’s most recent exhibition

Spanish Flu: the pandemic inspiration for the Florence Nightingale Museum’s most recent exhibition
Entrance to the Spanish Flu Exhibition at the Florence Nightingale Museum. Photo courtesy of the Florence Nightingale Museum
Must see  -   Exhibitions

The Florence Nightingale Museum (FNM) is a small but fierce museum in London museum community. The medical museum based directly across from the Houses of Parliament within the campus of St. Thomas’ teaching hospital unites history, artifacts, sciences, and compassion. Small in comparison to most major museums in London, the FNM makes superb use of its space to create the biggest experience for visitors. The gallery space is split into sections that highlight the life of the woman who blazed the trail for the nursing profession. This means that the typical guest is a bit different from your traditional museum visitor.

2018 is an important year for the museum, though, as the legacy of Florence Nightingale is put under the microscope in an exhibition focusing on the pandemic of 1918. One hundred years ago the world was entrenched in World War I, but that wasn’t the only seemingly endless battle the early twentieth century fought. Every continent experienced the strife that was the Spanish Flu, now a somewhat controversial name given to the virus during its peak, and the horrible affect it would have on society.

The specific N1H1 strand of influenza spread like wildfire affecting soldiers, British government, and famous men and women like Walt Disney or Rose Selfridge. The pandemic has even been highlighted in the lives of fictional characters like (spoiler) Downton Abbey’s Lavinia Swire. Spanish Flu, though, usually falls victim to the looming shadow of World War I and the havoc the epidemic wreaked on the world is not often discussed.

The Spanish Flu exhibition focuses less so on the war and far more on the uphill battle fought by the doctors and nurses not sent to the front lines of WWI. The FNM tells the story of London’s St. Marylebone Hospital where a Dr. Ford and around 200 nurses worked tirelessly to save those that fell victim to the fast acting strand of flu.

Individuals affected Spanish Flu, or the Spanish Lady as it was often called, could easily perish within 48 hours to the onset of symptoms. Thus, what started with the usual flu symptoms could quickly progress to patients with blue-hued faces as their lungs filled with fluids choking them from the inside out.

The exhibition sheds light on the pandemic that is often forgotten due to the war with which it shared the spotlight. It puts startling statistics in a matter of fact exhibition that leads viewers to reevaluate the ways in which we view sickness. For the small amount of space available for the exhibition, there is much to be learned. Sobering interactive exhibits and multimedia installations tell the story of the Spanish Flu epidemic. The exhibition leaves you with new understanding of what the world and disease looked like a century ago.