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Discovering Mathematical Qualities in Primary Sources from the 1918 Flu Pandemic

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Celia Roskin, a recent graduate of Elon University, wrote this during her work as the Fall 2020 Teaching with Primary Sources Intern in the Young Readers Center at the Library of Congress.

Math is a subject that some students have negative feelings toward; I should know because I was one of those students! However, looking for math connections in historical primary sources, I discovered some intriguing connections to recent events. This blog post is intended to assist teachers in utilizing primary sources from the 1918 influenza pandemic to enhance a math lesson.

Before incorporating a primary source into a math lesson, it is crucial to consider why a particular source is relevant. What makes the source unique? How does it deepen and enhance student learning?

“Influenza and the Mask.” The Logan [Utah] Republican, December 21, 1918
An excellent example of a primary source with mathematical importance is this newspaper article, “Influenza and the Mask,” from a 1918 edition of The Logan Republican. To me, the most compelling part of this newspaper article is the graph depicted at the top of the page. This line graph compares the rate of influenza with number of infected individuals, public adherence to quarantine regulations, and number of deaths in Logan, Utah. Line graphs are still regularly used today, especially recently to depict the spread of COVID-19. Therefore, not only is this primary source relevant, it is engaging and answers the question as to why we learn and engage with certain mathematical concepts.

First introduce the graph to students in an Observe, Reflect, Question activity. Ask students:

  • What do you notice about the graph?
  • What is important to consider when looking at a line graph like this?
  • What patterns do you observe?
“Influenza and the Mask.” The Logan [Utah] Republican, December 21, 1918

After students have spent time with the graph, introduce the article. Were the students’ initial observations of the graph consistent with the information in the article? Expand on the concept of interdependent mathematical relationships, allowing students to further explore the idea of correlation vs. causation. Engage students in delving deeper into the article by encouraging conversations.

  • Were your initial thoughts about the graph confirmed by the article?
  • What did you find surprising after reading the article?
  • What is one thing you learned?

Encourage students to take inspiration from this graph to make their own using data from the pandemic today. This will further enhance student ability to independently research and collect data. Some ideas for information to make line graphs on:

  • School attendance before and during COVID-19
  • How successful certain businesses were doing before and during the pandemic
  • The cost of masks, gloves, cleaning supplies, or overtime

Engaging students with math in a real-life context is key to increasing meaningful engagement. This assists in further reaching diverse groups of students and makes the information relevant, informative, and fun! What did your students discover when they took a closer look at the data?


Comments (3)

  1. Excellent historical tool (Library of Congress and the Internet) that has taken “life” in the present. As long as the historical threads are accurately maintained, conveyed and applied in the right context in this time/future periods there is an opportunity to prevent common health mistakes and the wider public can appreciate faster when outbreaks occur and promptly take individual preventive measures, because the tools allowed for effective transfer of information with educational intent.

  2. This is a really interesting, and relevant, real-world connecting article. Thank you so much for publishing it, as it is apparent it took a lot of time. 🙂

  3. This is so interesting! I am going to show it to my math nerd friends.

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