The Great Dread: Cultural and Psychological Impacts and Responses to the ‘Russian’ Influenza in the United Kingdom, 1889–1893

  • Date: 14/03/20
  • Mark Honigsbaum, Social History of Medicine, August 2010

The ‘Russian’ influenza across Europe and the morbidity of leading politicians and other members of the British establishment occasioned widespread ‘dread’ and in some cases panic. Some 125,000 Britons perished in the pandemic.

From The Illustrated Police News, 3rd January 1892. Copyright The British Library Board.

This dread of influenza was fuelled by the high mortality rate in northern towns such as Sheffield, as well as by the disease’s association with pneumonia, neurasthenia, psychosis and suicide. However, the key factor was the growth of mass circulation newspapers and the way that the influenza drew on fin de siècle cultural anxieties about urbanisation and the increasing speed of modern life.

In the autumn of 1890, Winston Churchill wrote a curious poem entitled ‘The Influenza’. Then a 15 year-old pupil at Harrow, Churchill’s precocious verse was inspired by Europe’s recent experience of the ‘Russian’ influenza, so-called because the epidemic had first broken out in St Petersburg in the autumn of 1889. To this impressionable young schoolboy and future British Prime Minister, the influenza was a ‘vile, insatiate scourge’, a disease that was no respecter of nationality or class. Tracing the Russian flu’s ‘noiseless tread’ from China and over ‘bleak Siberia’s plains’ to Russia, Alsace and ‘forlorn Lorraine’, Churchill wrote:

The rich, the poor, the high, the low

Alike the various symptoms know

Alike before it droop.

To Churchill’s insular way of thinking it was only because of a quirk of geography—‘the streak of brine’, as he put it—that the flu’s power ‘to threaten Freedom’s isle’ had been dissipated. Nevertheless, he recognised, the flu had eventually breached even ‘this thin line’.

When Churchill wrote his poem no one had experienced a pandemic of influenza for 42 years. To most laymen and the majority of medics, influenza was little more than a synonym for a bad cold or catarrh. The Russian flu changed all that, sweeping across Europe and North America in three waves that left no doubt as to the disease’s extensive morbidity and its connection with modern communication and transportation technologies. Unlike the earlier 1847–8 pandemic, the Russian flu was extensively documented and seen to spread rapidly between European capitals via international rail, road and shipping connections in a westward progression that was the subject of widespread commentary in both the daily and periodical press. In Britain, some four million people were sickened in the 1889–90 wave alone, and some 27,000 died. Taking into account the subsequent 1891 and 1892 waves of the disease, and the severe recrudescence of influenza in 1893, some 125,000 Britons perished in the pandemic. Yet while the mortality from these later waves equalled and, in some locales, surpassed those of earlier nineteenth-century cholera and smallpox epidemics, it has been argued that the Russian flu ‘occasioned little overt distress and left no discernible imprint on public memory or institutions’.

In this article, I will argue that this characterisation fails to take into account the profound cultural and psychological impacts of the pandemic. In particular, I argue that the morbidity of leading politicians and other prominent members of the establishment, coupled with the high mortality associated with the 1891 wave in northern towns such as Sheffield, occasioned widespread ‘dread’. This dread of influenza was fuelled by the growth in cheap mass circulation newspapers and periodicals and the competition between Reuters and other specialist wire correspondents to keep Victorian readers abreast of the latest news of the pandemic. Indeed, the rapid progress of the influenza across Europe via the railway network and the near-instantaneous reporting of the outbreaks via the worldwide telegraphic network made the Russian influenza as much a media event as a disease event. 

In this sense, the Russian influenza was peculiarly ‘modern’—a pandemic that seemed to be intimately linked to modern trade and transportation technologies and the increasing speed of global communications. This association between the pandemic and modernising tendencies at the fin de siècle was further exacerbated by the way that the influenza seemed to single out the urban middle classes and, in particular, male heads of households for attack, as well as by the fact that the earliest recorded casualties were precisely those considered most essential to the smooth functioning of Victorian society and economy, such as diplomats, post office workers, lawyers, and the employees of banks and insurance firms.

The article is divided into four sections. In the first, I trace the initial wave of morbidity and examine the way that the media’s focus on the ubiquity of the attacks amplified the popular fears of this ‘new disease’ from Russia. In the second and third sections, I examine the impact of the more lethal secondary wave on Sheffield and the Palace of Westminster and look at the way that the suddenness of the attacks and the dread of the respiratory complications drew on male anxieties connected to work. In the fourth, I turn to the neurological complications and examine how the dread of Russian influenza could itself become a nervous symptom of the disease. Influenza, I argue, has an unusual, chameleon-like ability to take on the characteristics or ‘spirit’ of the age.

 In 1889–93, the disease mirrored and reinforced anxieties about the pace of social change, urbanisation and an economy unsettled by the long agricultural depression that had begun in the 1870s. ‘Overwork and anxiety’—common tropes of modernity—were widely regarded as predisposing factors. At a time when mental states were framed in terms of neurological function and ‘nerve’ illnesses were thought to be traceable to organic processes, particular anxiety attached to the debilitating nervous sequelae of influenza, which included lethargy, depression, neurasthenia and, in some cases, psychosis and suicide. Indeed, long before the more severe secondary wave of the pandemic, the flu’s relentless progress from one European capital to another and the ubiquity of the attacks gave the Russian influenza an unusual purchase on the popular imagination. 

While medical experts may not have regarded influenza as a particular threat to the individual body, in striking such a large number of people at the same time, including some of the most prominent figures at Westminster, the Russian influenza was perceived as a direct threat to the political and social body.

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