Review ID: CBB592789751

Review of "In a Time of Plague: Memories of the 'Spanish' Flu Epidemic of 1918 in South Africa" (2020)


With In a Time of Plague, Howard Phillips, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Cape Town, adds to his impressive collection of material related to Spanish flu. As well as his publications, Phillips was also co-convener of the interdisciplinary conference ‘The Spanish Flu 1918–98: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 after 80 Years’.1In a Time of Plague is part of the prestigious Van Riebeeck Society for the Publication of Southern African Historical Documents series, now in its second century of publishing.The literature on Spanish flu has greatly expanded in the last few decades, spurred by research breakthroughs on the virus and its pandemic impact, a broadening of pandemic topics to incorporate social and cultural elements, and the 100-year anniversary of the disaster. Few can offer what Phillips has collected here in In a Time of Plague, which provides the direct recollections of 127 survivors of the dreadful ‘Black October’ (as it is commonly known as in South Africa). The accounts come from three remarkable sources: letters sent to Howard Phillips in response to his 1978 request for accounts of Spanish flu survivors; letters from South Africa collected by Richard Collier in 1972–73 in response to his newspaper appeals for stories to support his 1974 book The Plague of the Spanish Lady; and interviews in English, Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu conducted by Phillips in the years 1978–81.2 The strength of these recollections lays in addressing what Phillips sees as a deficiency in the literature on Spanish flu: the ‘relative silence about the personal’ nature of the catastrophe (p.xxii). This testimony can no longer be duplicated as it comes from those who were children, teenagers and young adults during the crisis and so have vivid memories of the events. Gathered here are the voices of those who endured the infection, witnessed the stunning impact of death and disease, and participated in the make-shift efforts to provide comfort and support to family members, neighbours and strangers.

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