Viral Hive Knowledge: Twitter, Historians, and Coronavirus/COVID-19

We are all historians of the present. At least we should be. Many fellow historians of knowledge are currently using a wide variety of media to share their experience and research in an effort to put the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic into context. Twitter is one medium where this conversation is especially lively, as Eileen Sperry has noted on Nursing Clio, a wonderful group blog that is also active on Twitter. One can find these parts of Twitter by searching for the relevant hashtags, for example, #histmed (history of medicine) and the much more generic #twitterstorians (historians on twitter).

Twitter is the forum in which I participate most actively and where I feel most at home among a large community of scholars interested in the history of science, technology, and medicine (STM), not to mention environmental history—topics accessible through the hashtags #histSTM and #envhist respectively. Recent events have been taking me back to my PhD research on perceptions and containment policies during cattle plague outbreaks in Northern and Central Europe in the mid eighteenth century, which I published almost ten years ago. Here I offer a few impressions on what is happening at the moment on Twitter regarding the history of epidemics, pandemics, and epizootics. The title of this post is inspired by my current work on the material culture of insect studies, ca. 1770–1830 (#enthist). It also calls to mind the “hive mind” internet trope, albeit without the negative connotations. As with the coronavirus pandemic itself, online attention has been expanding quickly, so please excuse the inevitable omissions and oversights. This is just a rough guide to where I have found interesting information and important interventions in recent days. My main goal is to encourage you to take a look on Twitter yourself.

One of the most active historians of epidemics on Twitter right now is the medical historian Monica H. Green. She was stuck in transit for a few days on her return to the United States from Great Britain and so set up virtual office hours to answer questions about historically contextualizing the current pandemic. She has also curated a list of historians of medicine on Twitter, to which people can subscribe. There you can follow more #histmed scholars than I can possibly mention in this short piece. One great thing about this list is that its members come from and conduct research on many corners of the globe, and they cover many time periods. The disaster historian Scott Knowles provides further insights with a specific hashtag and format. In daily discussions on Zoom and Twitter, he and many others discuss COVID-19 from diverse angles and disciplines with tweets that include the hashtag #COVIDcalls.

Crises like the current pandemic rarely change the mechanics of society, culture, and politics, but they make them more visible. This is precisely what the Berlin-based historian and activist Edna Bonhomme underlines.

Another historian based in Germany, Julia Engelschalt, not only has an appropriate Twitter handle but was also interviewed in a podcast that I learned about on Twitter.

Podcasts and blogs are often used in concert with Twitter. Take, for instance, The Global War Against the Rat and the Epistemic Emergence of Zoonosis, a research project at the University of St. Andrews. Its leader, the medical anthropologist Christos Lynteris, recently announced publication of a COVID-19 Forum on Somatosphere that includes fifteen essays by anthropologists and historians.

Epidemics also reveal a lot about the relationship of humans to other animals. When it comes to zoonoses or epizootics, Abigail Woods is among the most productive and interesting historians in this field. Her thirteen-tweet thread on policy responses to epidemics can be read as a single piece on a web application called Thread Reader. Or one can jump right in on Twitter by selecting and clicking on a tweet in the thread.

Cindy Ermus, co-founder of the online journal Age of Revolutions, draws on her current research into the 1720 Marseille Plague in her tweets. With other scholars, she also uses the hashtag #DisasterHist, which includes infectious diseases in history. One of her tweets calls attention to a list of quarantine sources on the bibliography platform Zotero from the Quarantine Studies Network.

We are all self-isolating now, and it feels new, but this practice has a long history too, as Hannah Newton shows on the University of Reading’s Health and Humanities blog in “Home and Alone.” In fact, there is even a general-purpose hashtag on Twitter to remind people that #EverythingHasAHistory. At the same time, quarantine and self-isolation have complicated histories and evince differences across time and regions, as a helpful five-tweet thread by Justin Stearns on the premodern Muslim world shows.

(Keep in mind that Twitter, like text messages, is a medium that does not permit one to edit typos and auto-correct mishaps.)

Such research-oriented tweets come mixed with the personal. Many of us are reflecting on our own situations, including the more-or-less make-shift offices at home, something many other scholars can relate to. It is therefore no surprise that some very popular #histmed tweets are coming from the fingers of the Freiburg historian Thomas Zimmer, who works on global health policies in the twentieth century while also reflecting on his own feelings and thoughts during the current outbreak. On March 19, 2020, at 5:41 p.m. CET, the following tweet already had 9,813 retweets and 36,466 likes.

Such numbers are small in a world of celebrity tweets, but they point to an impressively wide reach in academic communities.

Individuals play an important role in histories of infectious disease, not only as responsible citizens taking care of themselves and others but also in “patient zero” narratives. The perhaps best known nineteenth-century case is evoked, for instance, by Jaipreet Virdi, a historian of medicine, technology and disability.

Richard McKay has written about a more recent history of this kind, this one related to HIV/AIDS; however, he rightly urges us to “refrain from using language like ‘the hunt for patient zero.’” In fact, recent work on HIV/AIDS can provide powerful tools for understanding the politics of epidemics past and present. Lukas Engelmann, the author of “Mapping AIDS,” reminds us of relevant work he has done on 1900 San Francisco, for instance.

This tweet, much like my little essay, might sound like self-promotion, but if we don’t publicize our work, only a small circle of experts will know about it. The same tweet illustrates another important aspect of knowledge sharing on Twitter as well. Many of us are making explicit where our assessment of the current situation is coming from and how our historical research informs it. This relates to an important practice in historiography, source criticism (Quellenkritik), useful for us all, particularly in this age of “fake news.”

Many colleagues are also offering teaching materials on Twitter. Check out the hashtags #coronavirussyllabus, #PandemicPedagogy, and #teachthevirus, which provide valuable inspiration. Using films is a tried and tested pedagogical tool. It is fortunate that the environmental historian and filmmaker Gregg Mitman just finished one on Ebola.

This scholar’s work is a constant source of inspiration for many environmental historians of medicine and science, and I look forward to seeing the film.

Many publishers and repositories already offer open access publications, and others are making them freely available for the current crisis, when teaching can only occur online. A list of publisher resources can be found here, and it will certainly grow: (

Despite having tons of digitized materials at the ready, the transition to online teaching and research will not come easy for most. Aisha Ahmad offers some good advice, emphasizing the need for a long-term perspective:

Finally, in times of sorrow and hardship, humor and friendship are more important than ever. I for one can always rely on those tweeting with the hashtag #museumtwitter. My current work on the history of collections has introduced me to this wonderful community online and in real life. Follow #MuseumFromHome to discover online collections and exhibitions around the world. At the same time, the work of collecting has not stopped. The Medical Museum Hamburg, for instance, already started collecting objects and memories from the current pandemic.

The twitter hive can provide needful knowledge, information, community, and solace. In fact, I could not have put together this post without the help of many other scholars on Twitter. This contextualizing work on Twitter also illustrates how it is maybe time to turn to historians, alongside doctors and other public health professionals, when assessing policies to contain and get through the current pandemic.

Dominik Hünniger is a research fellow (wissenschaflicher Mitarbeiter) at the University of Hamburg, and his Twitter handle is @dominikhhh. He frequently tweets with the hashtag #histknow.