In November 1889, a rash of cases of influenza-like-illness appeared in St. Petersburg, Russia. Soon, the “Russia Influenza” spread across Europe and the world.
During the 1889 outbreak of the so-called Russian Influenza, the media was overwhelmed by reports on the spread of the flu. In these early stages of the outbreak, the disease was spreading rapidly and tensions were high. Information was scarce, conflicting, and often exaggerated. Past influenza outbreaks had resulted in high mortality. Newspaper reports therefore tended to be of an alarmist or sensationalist nature. This style of reporting demonstrated what Mark Honigsbaum described as the “The Great Dread,” which was a general fear of everything related to the disease that seemed both pervasive and perverse. What, the public wondered, would the outcome of this epidemic be?
At the beginning of the epidemic, many newspapers printed a list of telegrams from all the major European cities. They described both the location to which the influenza had spread as well as statistics on mortality and morbidity. In addition to numerical errors in the reports about the influenza, there was also confusion in the medical field. Doctors were unsure whether to classify the disease as dengue or influenza, often misdiagnosing one for the other. Adding to the confusion, the influenza was also commonly referred to as trancazo, catarrh, and grippe. One thing was clear; a lot of people were getting sick. However, as doctors across Europe began, by the middle of December, to dispel the mystery surrounding the disease, the tone in the newspapers shifted from alarmist to cautionary and reassuring. Once it became clear that the disease was very rarely deadly and passed easily with proper rest, many reports claimed that the disease had “a benign character” and was nothing to worry about.
In January 1890, Le Petit Parisien ran a full-page illustration of the response to epidemic in Paris—a tableau of various scenes—that demonstrate how the high morbidity yet low mortality of the Russian Influenza shaped the reaction of the public and the media, once the disease was better understood. The types of activities depicted show how medical officials and the public perceived the disease. The top left picture portrays a temporary ward set up in a tent pitched in a hospital courtyard, illustrating how doctors realized the dangers of disease transmission between patients. The tent was intended specifically for flu victims to separate the sick from the healthy.
The image in the center is the inside of the temporary hospital. The patients looked well cared for, with almost as many attendants as patients. It does not appear that the patients are getting any treatment other than water and attention, however, which is suggestive of the way the disease was perceived: as a benign illness that will pass with time and rest, rather than a serious threat to public health. The picture in the bottom left depicts two musicians performing a song about influenza entitled, “the whole world has influenza” to a large crowd. Finally, the distribution of clothing to the families of victims of influenza, is shown in the bottom right image.
Although it was not viewed as a threat, the disease permeated the culture of the time. In the United States, a cartoon from the January 11, 1890 edition of Harper’s Weekly, illustrates this phenomena nicely. The sentiment expressed here is one of unconcern. The wife brushes off the doctor’s news of her husband’s contraction of the “prevailing ailment” as “nothing.” Not only has the husband easily survived this sort of ailment before, the wife’s method of caring for him is no different than her remedy for a particularly hard night of drinking: the only thing necessary to bring the husband back to health is to “keep him in nights.” She seems confident that the disease will pass of its own accord given time.
A cartoon that appeared in the British periodical Judy in the January 22, 1890 issue conveyed a similar message. In this cartoon, the old Uncle Boboddy has a hard time understanding the two young girls, and he mistakes the word “guitars” for the word, “catarrhs,” which leads to an affirmation of the widespread nature of the disease (“Catarrhs! Dear me! Epidemic? Sort of influenza!”), followed immediately a report of his own condition that clearly downplayed the danger “I’ve got it myself—A-a-thishoo!.” The headline for this cartoon, “Catching—In More Ways than One,” is illustrative of how this disease permeated the culture, but without raising significant fears of its possible deadly impact. The “dread” highlighted by historian Honigsbaum was thus just one of many possible responses to the widespread reporting of the disease.