A History of the Great Influenza Pandemics: Death, Panic and Hysteria 1830-1920
Influenza was the great killer of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The so-called 'Russian influenza' epidemic killed about 1 million people across Europe in 1889-93 – including the second-in-line to the British throne, the Duke of Clarence. The Spanish flu of 1918, meanwhile, would kill 50 million people – nearly three percent of the world's population.
This book outlines the history of influenza in the period. In particular, I show how the Russian flu drew on the ‘New Journalism’ and Victorian celebrity culture to create widespread anxiety and, in some cases, hysteria about a disease that had previously been considered relatively harmless.
Coinciding with a boom in cheap newsprint, the Russian flu pandemic was one of the most widely reported epidemics in history. Thanks to telegraphic bulletins filed the previous evening by Reuters correspondents in St Petersburg and other diseased European capitals, Victorians were able to track the flu in ‘real time’ – something that had not been possible during earlier nineteenth century epidemics of cholera and typhus. As the flu was carried by rail from St Petersburg to London, Paris and Berlin, it became a barometer of fin-de-siècle cultural anxieties, drawing on fears engendered by technology, urbanisation and degeneration.
The result was that by the mid 1890s the flu was regarded as a predominantly nervous illness with a peculiar ability to spark episodes of insomnia, depression and psychosis. At the same time, dread of the disease was exacerbated by medical surveys focusing on ‘excess’ respiratory deaths.
A key turning point was the death of Queen Victoria’s grandson the Duke of Clarence in the winter of 1892. Clarence’s death from pneumonia brought on by an influenzal 'chill' was seen as a national tragedy and prompted a proliferation of cartoons in which the flu was portrayed as angel of death or a ‘fiend’-like microbe. As Winston Churchill, then a 15-year-old schoolboy, observed:
The rich, the poor
The high, the low
Alike the symptoms know
Alike before it droop.
In all, it is estimated some 110,000 Britons perished in the three waves of the Russian pandemic – a total which approaches the mortality from the better known 1918-19 ‘Spanish flu’. However, while the Spanish flu has been the subject of several books and films, the Russian flu has been truly forgotten, hence the importance of restoring it to its place in cultural history.