Just over 100 years ago, the flu swept through Philadelphia killing more than 20,000 people. The city suffered from the highest death rate of any American city during this global flu pandemic. In its new exhibit “Spit Spreads Death”, the Mütter Museum puts a human face on this devastating loss of life.
“Spit Spreads Death” looks at how the 1918 epidemic impacted Philadelphian neighborhoods, how the disease spread, and what this event can tell us about future epidemics. The museum began working on the exhibit five years ago. Researchers uncovered tens of thousands of death certificates scattered in archives throughout the city. The museum then decided to create an online database and map of these death certificates. Visitors can search the database by their address to see if someone died in their home or by name to try to find a relative. Mütter Museum director Robert Hicks described this project as a part of the institution’s attempt to humanize the epidemic. “We did want this to be up close and personal,” he said.
The museum plans to continue to make the flu pandemic personal by hosting a series of community programs connected to the exhibit. The first community program took place on September 28. Together with local health organizations and Philadelphia community members, the museum held a parade to memorialize the victims of the pandemic. The parade also marked the anniversary of the Liberty Loan parade held on September 28, 1918 that helped facilitate the spread of the disease. Footage of the 2019 memorial parade has been integrated into the “Spit Spreads Death” exhibit.
“Spit Spreads Death” opened on October 17. The museum plans to keep the exhibit on view permanently.