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Russell Johnson: Piecing Together the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

UCLA alumnus Russell Johnson (’93, MLS), was featured in a recent article for Atlas Obscura on a UCLA Library Special Collection he created of letters, photographs, diaries, and other documents and ephemera of the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Johnson, who is the Curator for History of Medicine and the Sciences, UCLA Library Special Collections, has worked at the Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library (“Biomed”) since 1997, first as a cataloger/archivist and when the unit merged into the UCLA Library Special Collections, in his current position.

Johnson grew up outside Boston and earned his degree in psychobiology at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He moved to Los Angeles — having never been west of Philadelphia — for the graduate program in Physiological Psychology at UCLA, but later decided to change his course of study to the then-UCLA Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

In 2019, Johnson was honored with the Librarian of the Year Award by the Librarians Association of the University of California, Los Angeles (LAUC-LA). He also received this distinction in 2009.

Johnson, who located and purchased many of the 1918 materials on eBay and other far-flung sources, shared the experience with Ampersand of amassing a collection with such great resonance in the current pandemic; his experiences and mentors as a MLS student at UCLA; and having the ability to share seemingly random bits and pieces of human interaction that inform scholarship, society, and possibly, even medical breakthroughs.

Ampersand: What parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and the influenza scourge of 1918-19 occurred to you while you amassed this collection?

Russell Johnson: Building the collection pre-dated the COVID-19 pandemic, and followed in the footsteps of the strengths of collections that my predecessors created in Vaccination/Inoculation history and Contagious Diseases (such as smallpox and cholera), for example. If I tried to start the collection now it would be more difficult, because there is much more competition for the primary material. So, whether with our Influenza Narratives collection, Get Well Cards Collection, or Baby Record Books Collection, the key can be having good reasoning going in and taking the risk of “If we build it, will they (researchers) come?”

&: What are some striking differences, apart from the fact that there is little snail mail today?

The similarities greatly outweigh the differences! One interesting thread is how many people struggled with what to call the disease: was it plain influenza, or the “Spanish” flu, or “flue,” or “fluenzy,” or what? But a great difference was how in 1918-19, with the second wave of the disease’s spread, communities and military camps became overwhelmed by the scope of the outbreak. 

We recently purchased a volume consisting of the entire run of mimeographed Base Hospital daily bulletins at Camp Custer, Michigan. One entire month of bulletins appeared to be missing, but they really weren’t; the numbering sequence continued uninterrupted over the month’s break. During that time, the staff was so overwhelmed by more than 7,000 cases and almost 700 deaths, there was no time to print a daily record. Sometimes it takes reading between the lines of reports and letters and diaries to infer just how bad something became.

&: What have been some of the biggest “a-ha” moments from your career in the UCLA Biomedical Library and Library Special Collections? Have any huge discoveries been made from your archives?

Johnson: Wow, there have been so many, sometimes every day – that’s why curating a collection is such a great job. You hunt and get to see importance in things that other people may miss; handle and describe and make materials findable and available to people; and introduce researchers – from academics to members of the public – and students to fascinating or even mundane books, manuscripts, ephemera, and objects.

Some “a-ha”s come from “The Find”—like an 1843 letter [found] on eBay from Santa Claus to a six-year-old girl: “To night is Christmas eve, so I have all the little children in the world to visit — I give the best things to the best children. You have been very good to take medicine & have the leeches on. I hope you will be better soon.”

Others might come from “The Realization”—such as, the reason no one asked for those Florence Nightingale letters was because they hadn’t been cataloged since local urologist/book collector Elmer Belt donated them in 1958. They are well-cataloged now, and will be quoted for Nightingale’s 200 birthday next week.

I don’t know what major discoveries have been made in the history of medicine and science collections, but there are lots of interesting and important ones. For example, UCLA Library’s Special Collections offers short-term research fellowships in the name of alumnus Ken Karmiole, alumna Barbara Rootenberg, and donors James and Sylvia Thayer. Through these, we get to anticipate and then see how our collections are mined for dissertations, articles, books, talks, and even performances. Those are the best “a-ha”s—when our researchers make use of what we have collected and say, “Look at this!”

&: How did your education in what was then the UCLA GSLIS (Graduate School of Library and Information Science) inspire you to combine your love of science with your present career?

Johnson: I came to UCLA as a graduate student in Physiological Psychology (now Behavioral Neuroscience), but didn’t finish the PhD. However, that background [proved] invaluable, because I combined it with the skills and taste and judgment I learned in library school to become a very good subject specialist librarian rather than a half-hearted and second-rate experimental researcher. I worked on neuroscience archives through the Brain Research Institute during school, so I kept my hands in science throughout.

What I didn’t expect was to get a deep appreciation of and expertise in cataloging—which I attribute to professor Elaine Svenonius, whom some of us admiringly called the “Goddess of Cataloging,” and to a summer as a Junior Fellow at the Library of Congress. This led to a team project cataloging the Children’s Book Collection in Special Collections, then getting collection development training while working with alumna Kathy Donahue at the Biomed Library – which is where I am today, in the unit that now is part of UCLA Library Special Collections: building and promoting collections, making then findable, and getting them used!

To read the Atlas Obscura story on Johnson’s 1918 pandemic collection at UCLA Library Special Collections, visit this link.

Photo by Lisa Redmond