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

March 23, 2020 in History

By Greg Daugherty

Modern transportation helped make it the first global outbreak.

From America’s vantage in 1889, the Russian influenza posed little cause for concern. So what if it had struck with a vengeance in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg that fall, infecting as much as half the population? Or that it had raged swiftly eastward across Europe, into the British Isles? Or that some of the continent’s most prominent leaders—the czar of Russia, the king of Belgium, the emperor of Germany—had fallen ill with the virus?

To Americans, it was safely over there, a vast ocean away.

But within a few months, the pandemic spread to virtually every part of the earth. Tracing its path, scientists would observe that it tended to follow the major roads, rivers and, most notably, railway lines—many of which hadn’t existed during last major pandemic in the 1840s.

That finding gave credence to the theory that the disease was spread by human contact, not by the wind or other means—and that as long as people could move with ease from city to city and country to country, stopping its spread would be all but impossible. Today, the Russian influenza is often cited as the first modern flu pandemic.

READ MORE: Pandemics That Changed History: A Timeline

A Russian map, dated 1890, detailing the occurrence of influenza by province across Russia.

Coming to America

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 seemed to cause no particular stir in the U.S. and certainly nothing resembling a panic. But just as railroad transportation had allowed the influenza to cross Europe in a matter of weeks, the larger, faster steamships of the day increased the odds that infected travelers would soon be arriving from across the Atlantic.

Indeed, New York and other East Coast port cities became the earliest U.S. locales to report suspected cases, and seven members of one Manhattan family, ranging in age from 14 to 50, were among the first confirmed patients. Their household’s outbreak had begun with sudden chills and headaches, reports said, followed by sore throat, laryngitis and bronchitis. Overall, “the patients were about as sick as persons with a bad cold,” according …read more


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