Death Becomes This: “Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 in Philadelphia” opens at the Mütter Museum

When I was a child having Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s house in South Philly, the oldest of my father’s brothers and sisters – those uncles and aunts of mine who were kids during World War 1 – used to tell me that there was a flu that wiped out thousands of people in the city. No one in our family had it, and maybe no one they knew did either, but, there was always talk of neighbors, “a block down” having had it, with the threat of impending death and mysterious and sudden decay lingered in the air.

Where death, mystery, decay, and all things medicine go, so goes the Mütter Museum at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia (19 S. 22nd Street), and its just-opened exhibition, “Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 in Philadelphia.”

The Mütter Museum at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia (19 S. 22nd Street).

Contained in one video-heavy gallery apart from the rest of the stately Mütter’s skulls, spleens and intestines, “Spit Spreads Death,” named after signs placed around town at the time warning Philadelphians that even the tiniest lunger could kill, dramatically portrays the drastic and quick blanketing of what was known as “the Spanish flu” throughout Philadelphia’s ethnic neighborhoods.

Along with old metal pins and poster boards warning of the influenza’s spread, portrayed during the exhibition are video footage, photos, and family testimonies from the September 28, 2019 commemorative parade dedicated to the victims of the pandemic.

While yellowing news clippings and obituaries from city-wide and community newspapers (particularly those from Africa-American neighborhoods) portray the spread of airborne illness as it occurred through the city, a touch-screen “neighborhood explorer” gives the viewer/visitor access to how each block was affected by the deadly disease. The specificity of a search by family name, addresses, and neighborhood, allow you to bring death and dismay to your doorstep. Who in your family or your friends’ families suffered at the hand of the pandemic?

As an interactive animated digital map tracks each death through the city and how various demographic groups were impacted – and when in relation to other areas – so too does the array of 20,000 death certificates of individuals who died during the 1918-19 influenza spread. Just holding the weight of these certificates is enough to make you well up with tears.

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