Have We Learned Anything From the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic?

By Brendan Kennedy

Have We Learned Anything From the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic?


Leaders and philosophers dating back to ancient Greece have always been there to remind society about the perils of failing to learn from history. For that reason, as the United States continues to grapple with the COVID-19 health crisis, the New York legal community is paying attention to the lessons from the Spanish flu pandemic.

Earlier this month, the Historical Society of the New York Courts held a webinar titled, Lessons Learned From the 1918 Pandemic: Historical and Legal Framework of the Spanish Flu and How It Relates to Today’s Crisis, which explored the similarities, differences, and lessons learned from this pandemic.

Former NYSBA President Stephen P. Younger was the moderator of the webinar and he and retired Court of Appeals Judge Albert Rosenblatt are this week’s guests on the Non-Billable podcast, where they discuss some of the surprising ways in which the federal government’s response to the 1918 pandemic was similar to the federal government’s response to coronavirus. They also discuss several of the legal cases stemming from the 1918 pandemic and reveal how the Spanish Flu pandemic got its name.

Younger discussed some of the obvious differences in the structure of the federal government and the lack of real-time data.

“In 1918 the alphabet letter agencies, FEMA, CDC, FDA, didn’t exist,” Younger told show hosts Sarah Gold and Michael Fox. “So now we have these organs of the government that can give expertise in these areas and give guidance for the whole country. In 1918, the main source of information was your local newspaper, so places like San Francisco had stay-at-home initiatives, but Philadelphia didn’t and it became a major hotspot.”

Noting that in 1918 the pandemic caused the United States Supreme Court to halt proceedings, Rosenblatt remarked that in the current pandemic, the Supreme Court was able to hold proceedings via teleconference.

“In terms of public access, the silver lining is that the American public, for the first time in history was able to hear an argument before the Supreme Court,” Rosenblatt said. “If not for this pandemic, we would have never been able to hear how orderly and exemplary the arguments were.”

They also discuss how the Historical Society of the New York Courts was founded by former Chief Judge Judith Kaye in 2002. Judge Rosenblatt, who was sitting on the Court of Appeals at the time, recalls how from a small notebook with names of former Court of Appeals judges sprang the Historical Society of the New York Courts.

“I would sit with Judge Kaye each morning for breakfast and we’d remark on the oil paintings of people we barely knew anything about,” he said. “We knew they were important people that carried the history of jurisprudence in New York, so Judge Kaye tasked her secretary to compile the names of these people in the oil paintings and that is what led to the creation of the historical society.”

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