Russian Flu Pandemic of 1889 is considered the first Pandemic of modern times. It began its spread during the same months Elizabeth Bisland was racing Nellie Bly around the world. Thanks to improvements in modern transportation, Bly did it in 72 days while Bisland took 76. Thanks to those same improvements, the Russian flu went from St. Petersburg, through Europe to America in approximately 70 days.
Also a sign of modern times, populations were booming in urban centers, creating crowded conditions favorable for the virus. The flu started in 1889 with periodic spikes until 1895. When it was over, the Russian Flu Pandemic had sickened tens of millions out of a worldwide population of approximately 1.5 billion. Ultimately it claimed the lives of one million people.
Among the famous people sickened were the czar of Russia, the king of Belgium and the emperor of Germany. It also claimed the life of Queen Victoria’s grandson.
Patrick Berche, Professor and President of the Institut Pasteur writes in “The enigma of the 1889 Russian flu pandemic: A coronavirus?” (National Library of Medicine):
“Contemporaries were surprised by its high contagiousness as evidenced by attack rates averaging 60% in urban populations, its rapid spread in successive waves circling the globe in a few months by rail and sea, and the tendency of the disease to relapse.”
From media reports to case studies by 19th-century health officials, striking parallels exist between the Russian Flu Pandemic of 1889 and the COVID-19 crisis of 2019.
Bad News Began To Travel Fast In The 19th Century
With improved technologies in media communications, news of the mysterious illness was reported nearly in real time. Granted, news did not circle the globe in seconds as it can today, but certainly within 24 hours. The speed of continual reportage of the Russian Flu Pandemic kept readers on edge in the late 1800s.
According to Medical historian and author Mark Honigsbaum:
“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.”
The pandemic coincided with a ‘golden age’ for newspaper publication in England.
“Fueled by the 1855 repeal of the Stamp Act and falling production costs, the number of daily newspapers in the United Kingdom rose from 91 in 1872 to 159 in the 1890s. The result was that for the first time in their history, establishment papers such as The “Times and the Daily Telegraph found themselves facing stiff competition from new quality regional titles, while at the same time cheap mass market morning and evening papers selling for as little as half a penny began competing for the hearts and minds of the newly urbanized working classes.”
The same competitive forces facing newspapers were at work across Europe and in America where Joseph Pulitzer hired stunt reporters including Nellie Bly to attract readers. The Russian Flu Pandemic was a binge-worthy story, even if it did produce high anxiety and anticipatory stress among readers.
“Much of this news was supplied by Reuters, which had opened a London bureau in 1851, taking advantage of the worldwide telegraphic network to offer instant updates from its correspondents in far-flung European capitals. Further reporting and analysis was provided by the Press Association, which supplied its news direct to the Provincial Newspaper Society…”
According to the National Library of Medicine, many newspapers initially printed telegrams from major European cities. The content of these reports included the locations where the virus had spread, statistics on how many people were sickened and mortality rates.
“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.”
Health professionals lacked specific knowledge about the illness that would become known as the Russian Flu Pandemic. But they did know that a high percentage of people who were exposed were getting sick. Although one million people ultimately died from the illness, it became clear that the majority of people who got infected would recover.
The Russian Influenza Hit Parisian Press
In January 1890, Le Petit Parisien ran this full-page illustration in response to the Russian Influenza. Among the scenarios depicted–the top left shows “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.
In Paris, as in London and other cities, many businesses and services were disrupted. At one point the Postal Department nearly shut down due to illness among its workers.
Addressing Health is a Wellcome Trust-funded project studying the health of European postal workers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Researchers have learned that at one point people were concerned about the possible spread of the Russian Flu through the mail and its workers.
Russian Flu Hit U.S. Newspapers
By December of 1889 Elizabeth Bisland and Nellie Bly were well into their race to beat Jules Verne’s fictional record around the world in 80 days. Newspapers across America were reporting daily on their progress beside news of the Russian flu racing across Europe.
In his post for the Library of Congress, Tom Ewing, history professor at Virginia Tech, writes that most American papers used service reports from the Associated Press and Reuters. The same text was repeated in multiple cities. Individual papers often wrote their own headlines and sometimes added local news as well as statements from politicians and health officials. Local journalists reported specific stories from their towns.
“Most Americans first learned of the pandemic in early December of 1889. The nation’s newspapers covered its growing toll in Berlin, Brussels, Lisbon, London, Paris, Prague, Vienna and other cities. When top European leaders fell ill, Americans were updated on their condition on a near-daily basis.”
Even so, the news did not cause panic in America. Then, on December 28, 1889, newspapers reported the first death in the U.S..
“The victim was 25-year-old Thomas Smith of Canton, Massachusetts. He was said to have “ventured out too soon after his illness, caught a fresh cold and died of pneumonia.” Soon after, a prominent Boston banker also succumbed.”
As the death toll rose, Americans Americans were now taking The Russian Flu Pandemic seriously.
January 1890, New York had a record total of 1,202 deaths in the first week of January in 1890. (It was the same month that Bisland and Bly returned home from their race.) Although only 19 people reportedly died from the Russian influenza, it was believed that many succumbed to related causes.
For the week ending January 18, 1890 New York reported eighty-nine deaths from influenza. For the week ending January 11 the city of Brooklyn reported approximately 250 deaths. Boston, Baltimore and many eastern cities reported rising death tolls.
Ewing writes that by the end of December, 1889:
“…The Sun reported as many as 50,000 people ill with influenza in New York City. A week later, The Sun reported that public health officials recorded 1,202 deaths. As the number of deaths increased, media attention increased dramatically in quantity and intensity with this front page headline from The Evening World on January 9, 1890: “La Grippe’s Death-Blows. List of Victims of the Epidemic Increasing Every Day. The Highest Mortality Record Ever Seen in This City.”
The Flu Was Not So Deadly In San Diego, California
Nearly one half of San Diego’s population of 33,000 became infected with the flu during the early months of the pandemic. But no fatalities were reported. In an interview with a San Diego Union reporter on Thursday, February 6, 1890, a local doctor credited San Diego’s healthful climate.
“Aside from its great equableness, there is a something in our air that is inimical to the existence of any pulmonary or intestinal disease.”
While San Diego had no known deaths from the Russian flu Pandemic, the doctor reported that many patients were extremely ill for ten days or more. But the symptoms were not typical of flu. Instead, he said:
“…the disease being more of a dengue; in some cases even acting more like relapsing fever leaving the patient in a very debilitated and broken-down condition, with neuralgia or something else as a temporary legacy.
He also observed that many patients suffered central nervous system damage – a relatively rare symptom for influenza. While children and many others recovered remarkably well from the flu, compared it to Scarlet Fever, which also had a low mortality rate. However, he warned, it was highly dangerous in a secondary train of cases.
“… in its subsequent results, in pneumonia and other diseases, (Scarlet Fever) is one of the most fatal diseases of childhood. This Russian epidemic acts precisely in the same manner and persons should not treat it too lightly, as the after results may leave them more or less seriously impaired.”
The doctor warned readers of the dangers of supposed remedies that were being sold over the counter. The most dangerous being “antipyrin phenacetin and other like drugs.” Multiple deaths from the “cure” had been reported through Europe.
Some Scientists Believe A Corona Virus Caused The Russian Flu Pandemic Of 1889
A group of Belgian scientists researching the Russian Flu Pandemic came up with a new theory about the causative agent. Belgian biologist Leen Vijgen and her team published results in the Journal of Virology in 2005.
Using highly sophisticated research their conclusions have been taken seriously by many in the scientific community.
Patrick Berche, Professor and President of the Institut Pasteur writes in “The enigma of the 1889 Russian flu pandemic: A coronavirus?” (National Library of Medicine) writes:
Recently, phylogenetic studies have revealed the genetic proximity between a bovine coronavirus BCoV and the human virus HCoV-OC43, indicating that the latter emerged around 1890, at the time of the Russian flu…. Could the current human virus be the attenuated remnant that appeared after the Russian flu in 1894? Was there a coronavirus pandemic before Covid-19 ?
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