A HISTORY OF THE GREAT INFLUENZA PANDEMICS:
DEATH, PANIC AND HYSTERIA, 1830-1920
I B TAURIS 2014
What it’s about:
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.
My monograph 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.
What the critics say:
‘Mark Honigsbaum's new book is ambitious: he seeks to compare and contrast a series of influenza epidemics over more than a century, while also exploring the disease through the history of medicine, emotional comportment, and material realities. The result is riveting. Suffering and celebrity; sensationalism and scientific hubris these characterise the very human responses to this elusive affliction. This is eloquent, exciting, poignant, and scholarly history’. -- Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London.
‘For most, influenza means the 1918-20 pandemic or the more recent threats. In this volume, Honigsbaum cogently reminds us that influenza had an important earlier history. His evaluation of the Russian pandemic of the 1890s is masterful and evocative cartoons, advertisements and illustrations from the late Victorian popular press, brilliantly illustrate the book. Above all, it is a very good read’. -- William Bynum, Professor Emeritus of the History of Medicine, University College London.
‘Eschewing the more predictable approaches of social history or historical epistemology for cultural analysis, History of the Great Influenza Pandemics uses a century’s worth of flu outbreaks to develop an ‘emotionological’ account of influenza’s symbolic fortunes… [and offer] a novel approach to understanding epidemics… Despite the diverse and engaging examples that the author puts forward, the significance of the book is not merely empirical; it is also historiographic. [Honigsbaum’s] periodisation matters. By ending the story with the most devastating pandemic since the Black Death, Honigsbaum successfully drives home his deflationary point; namely, that despite the millions of deaths and hundreds of millions sickened, the 1918 flu pandemic and all its subsequent hyperbolic spectres are, in the end, ‘only flu’’. – Kenton Kroker, Medical History.
‘A fascinating account of the way in which a disease is defined and categorised, and how cultural events can be incredibly powerful in shaping our perception and reaction to it.. Honigsbaum's book is a fascinating account of the way in which a disease is defined and categorised, and how cultural events can be incredibly powerful in shaping our perception and reaction to it’. -- The Lancet.