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Institute of Evolutionary Medicine (IEM)

Ongoing Research on Past Pandemics


A) Background and aim

Since 2013, Historical Epidemiology has become an integral part of the research portfolio of the Anthropometrics and Historical Epidemiology Group. In this line of research, historical data is analysed with modern epidemiological methods and put in context to learn from the past for the present and future challenges. Here, we summarise our research activities on past pandemics in Switzerland

The current COVID-19 outbreak illustrates that the emergence of viral pandemics continues to be an immense challenge for public health and societies as a whole. Health policy makers would benefit from historical experience to increase risk awareness and inform decision making. However, valuable experiences from the past are not sufficiently accessible for researchers, policy makers, teachers, and the interested public. We aim to change that by digitising and thus making accessible archival data, and by extract the lessons to be learned from these data.

B) Ongoing sub-projects

At the moment, we work on the following funded projects:

1. Digitizing epidemiological data of the ‘Russian flu’ 1890 (funded by SWF UZH)

There is still no recent epidemiological study on the "Russian flu" of 1890 in Switzerland. There is a unique but hitherto hardly used source of data on the "Russian flu" in Switzerland (Schmid F, 1895). In this project, we digitise and transform this unique data source for the first time into a machine-readable data set that can later be analysed using modern methods.

2. Vsualising the spatial-temporal spread of the 1918/1919 Bern outbreak (funded by DSI UZH)

In 2020, together with Dr. Oliver Grübner, we were granted a small Kick start money grant from the Digital Society Initiative at the University of Zurich (DSI, Challenge Area Health) to realise a first draft of an interactive online data visualisation of the Bern 1918/1919 data  as a R Shiny application. 

3. Quantifying pandemic spread in Switzerland 1890, 1918 & 1957 (funded by UZH UniGE Cofunds)

In collaboration with Prof. Olivia Keiser we want to advance the state of quantitative knowledge on past influenza pandemics in Switzerland. Our main hypothesis is that the patterns of pandemic spread, its determinants, and effects of public health interventions are similar across pandemics. The aim of our project is to reconstruct the temporal and regional spread of the 1890, 1918 and 1957 pandemic outbreaks in Switzerland based on incidence and mortality data. Our project is also intended to digitise and make previously unavailable archive material accessible.

4. Bringing together outbreak data and pandemic narratives in newspapers – a pilot study in the canton of Bern, 1918/1919 (funded by DSI UZH)

The spread of a pandemic and the narratives about an ongoing pandemic are not independent from each other. In this pilot project in collaboration with PD Dr. Gerold Schneider, we are bringing together outbreak data and text information from newspapers (reconstructed by text mining methods) quantitatively for the first time using the example of 1918.

5. Implementation of the data & visualization hub LEAD – LEarning from the pAst: Digitized past pandemics in Switzerland (funded by DIZH)

History offers scenarios from past pandemics. In CH, these past experiences have been too little researched, they are not present. We currently digitize large amounts of historical data. From Spring 2022, we aim to go the “last mile” to a publicly accessible data & interactive visualization hub, telling selected data stories. Collaboration with Prof. Dr. Wibke Weber (ZHAW) et al.

C) Publications on past pandemics

Weiterführende Informationen


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Hybrid Mini-Symposium with EPIBEL on Nov 21, 2022

The EPIBEL project is visiting our group in Zurich, and together we organise a public hybrid mini-symposium on "Epidemics, space & inequality – past & present" on Nov. 21. Find the program and more details here.

The Spanish flu

Infectious Historians Blog


Recorded lecture

During his invited academic visit at the PANSOC at OsloMet in May 2022, Kaspar Staub gave a Lunsjpåfyll talk on "Excess mortality during past and present pandemics". The recording can be seen here.


Recorded lecture

Recorded plenary talk by Kaspar Staub during the SSPH+ Summer School Lugano (23.8.2021): "Learning from the past or forgetting the past? Past and present pandemics and how to prepare for future challenges" (Link to Youtube, presentation starts at min 22).