From the Executive Director

From the Executive Director features news and reflections on the work of PHMC by its chief administrator.

I hope this letter finds you and your loved ones well. I am writing to you from the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been a month of rapid change, and we at the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission have settled into the “new normal,” as they say, having adjusted to the stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Tom Wolf.

During this period, our nation is looking to previous pandemics for “lessons learned,” with the Spanish flu of 1918 being the most studied. This re-examination of history is evident in the headlines of today: “Understanding the 1918 Spanish Flu Outbreak Could Help Us Deal with COVID-19” (Pittsburgh Current, March 24, 2020), “The Horrors of 1918: What the Spanish Flu Can Teach Us about COVID-19” (The Caucus, March 24, 2020), “Pittsburgh Didn’t Confront the 1918 Epidemic in Time” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 19, 2020), “Allentown’s 1918 Triumph: In Flu Pandemic, Fairgrounds’ Camp Crane Saved Lives via Social Distancing” (The Morning Call, April 15, 2020), and many more. Closer to home, PHMC’s own web page devoted to the Spanish flu has been one of the agency’s most widely accessed pages over the past six weeks.

Pennsylvania played a sad and prominent role in the understanding of both the 1918 pandemic and the importance of nonpharmaceutical interventions (what we know today as Dr. Rachel Levine’s daily reminders regarding social distancing, handwashing and hygiene) in controlling the spread of the virus. Philadelphia of 1918 has become the poster child to illustrate the devastating effects of mass gatherings during a pandemic. In September that year, the city made the fateful decision to proceed with its Liberty Loan Parade, which was attended by more than 200,000 people and contributed greatly to the 13,000 deaths Philadelphia witnessed during the outbreak (see “1918’s Deadliest Killer: The Flu Pandemic Hits Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Heritage, Fall 2018).

Pittsburgh, ultimately one of the most hard-hit communities in the nation, was slow to respond to the pandemic. The October 8, 1918, edition of the Pittsburgh Press reported, “Although the number of cases of Spanish influenza have increased and the death list is growing, there is still no reason for Pittsburgh to become panic-stricken over the situation, according to local health authorities.” The flu would peak in the city two weeks later.

All these problems were exacerbated by a state government, health department and city leaders that did not rise together to meet the challenge of the pandemic. Fortunately, we have learned from history. Many of the nonpharmaceutical techniques that proved effective in the pandemic a century ago are being employed to great success today. Pennsylvanians have been staying at home, and together we appear to be flattening the curve.

I am writing this in mid-April, only partway through the pandemic. By the time you read this, things will have changed substantially. That’s history. Sometimes things change quickly, sometimes slowly. Our job at PHMC is to document it all and let it become “history.” The pandemic we are experiencing in the present will look different once historical perspective is applied. Like previous pandemics, it will become part of tomorrow’s “lessons learned.” What we will remember and learn from this pandemic will have the power to positively inform the decisions and actions of future Pennsylvanians.

With best wishes to you for good health and happiness,

Andrea Lowery
Executive Director, PHMC