The Russian Flu of 1889: The Deadly Pandemic Few Americans Took Seriously

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.

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