From the American point of view in 1889, the Russian flu was hardly a problem. What if it had struck with a vengeance in the Russian capital of Saint Petersburg this fall, infecting up to half the population? Or that he raged quickly west across Europe, into the British Isles? Or that some of the continent’s most prominent leaders – the Tsar of Russia, the King of Belgium, the Emperor of Germany – had fallen ill with the virus?
For Americans, it was safe over there, a vast ocean.
But within a few months, the pandemic had spread to virtually all parts of the earth. By tracing its path, scientists would notice that it tended to follow the main roads, rivers and, above all, the railways – many of which did not exist during the last great pandemic of the 1840s.
This discovery confirmed the theory that the disease spread by human contact, not by wind or other means – and that as long as people can easily move from city to city and from one country to another, stopping its spread would be anything but impossible. Today, the Russian flu is often cited as the first modern flu pandemic.
READ MORE: Pandemics That Changed History: A Chronology
Coming to America
Most Americans first heard of the pandemic in early December 1889. Newspapers across the country covered its growing toll in Berlin, Brussels, Lisbon, London, Paris, Prague, Vienna and others. cities. When the main European leaders fell ill, the Americans were informed of their condition almost daily.
Despite this, the news did not seem to cause any particular commotion in the United States and certainly nothing like a panic. But just as rail transportation had allowed flu to cross Europe in a matter of weeks, the larger, faster steamers of the day increased the chances that infected travelers would soon cross the Atlantic .
New York and other East Coast port cities have become the first U.S. sites to report suspected cases, and seven members of the same Manhattan family, aged 14 to 50, were among the first confirmed patients. The outbreak in their household started with sudden chills and headaches, reports said, followed by sore throats, laryngitis and bronchitis. Overall, “the patients were about as sick as the people with the bad cold,” according to a newspaper article.
Initially, public health officials downplayed the dangers, arguing that the Russian flu was a particularly mild strain. Some officials denied that it happened and insisted that the patients simply had a more typical cold or seasonal flu.
Newspapers also raised the issue of flu. “It is not deadly, nor even necessarily dangerous”, The evening world in New York announced, “but it will provide a great opportunity for dealers to work on their surplus bandanas.”
Did you know? While American presidents go by several names – schools, highways, airports – John Tyler, the 10th president, who served from 1841 to 1845, suffered from an epidemic. At the time, the flu was often referred to by its French name, “La Grippe”. When an epidemic struck during Tyler’s tenure, his political opponents began to call it “Tyler flu.” And, unfortunately for him, the name remained. But Tyler was not the first American president to give his name, even reluctantly, to the flu. The opposition of President Andrew Jackson seized an epidemic of 1829, calling it “itch of Jackson”.
A first death, then many others
Newspapers on December 28 reported the first death in the United States, Thomas Smith, 25, of Canton, Massachusetts. He is said to have “ventured too soon after his illness, caught a new cold and died of pneumonia”. Shortly after, a prominent Boston banker also died.
As the death toll increased, the Americans began to take the threat more seriously. During the first week of January 1890, New York reported a record winter deaths of 1,202 people. While only 19 of these cases have been attributed to influenza alone, the figures revealed a surprising increase in deaths from related illnesses.
“People with weakened lungs and those with heart disease or kidney problems are the most severely affected and, in many cases, the flu quickly causes pneumonia”, New-York Tribune reported.
The disease spreads to the west
Meanwhile, the disease spread inland, helped, as in Europe, by the vast American rail network. Reports have come from Chicago, Detroit, Denver, Kansas City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other American cities.
A victim in Los Angeles gave a particularly vivid description of the experience. “I felt like I was beaten with batons for about an hour and then plunged into an ice bath,” he told a reporter. “My teeth chattered like castanets, and I consider myself lucky now to have succeeded with a whole tongue.”
People were doing as best they could. “In an elevated train on Sixth Avenue this morning, half of the passengers were coughing, sneezing and applying tissues over their noses and eyes, and many of their heads were wrapped in scarves and mufflers”, The evening world reported. “They were a discouraged and desperate crowd.”
Pharmacists across the country have noted an unusually high demand for quinine, which some health officials have suggested as a possible remedy – although medical journals have warned of the dangers of self-medication and have urged people to simply leave the disease take its course.
An end, for the moment
By early February 1890, according to contemporary accounts, the flu had largely disappeared in the United States. As difficult as the pandemic was, the country had been lucky compared to much of Europe. New York City recorded the highest number of deaths, with 2,503, although Boston, with a smaller population, was hit the hardest per capita. The total number of deaths in the United States was just under 13,000, according to the US Census Office, out of about 1 million worldwide.
The Russian flu, however, was not entirely over. He returned several times in the following years. Fortunately, a large part of the American population was then immunized, after having been exposed to it during its first visit.
Today, the Russian flu is largely forgotten, overshadowed by the much more devastating Spanish flu of 1918. But it has given Americans a glimpse of life – and death – in an increasingly interconnected world.