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The Great Dread: influenza in the UK in peace and war, 1889–1919

May 7, 2012

Queen Mary, University of London – by Mark Honigsbaum

Writing in 1891, the Victorian throat expert Sir Morell Mackenzie opined that influenza was the “very Proteus of diseases”, a malady so diverse “that it seems to be not one, but all disease epitome”. Usually regarded as equivalent to a severe cold and an excuse for a few days’ bedrest, influenza at other times resembles a plague. Yet for all the mortality associated with influenza pandemics, influenza does not tend to disrupt the fabric of society. Nor is ‘flu’ a word likely to strike terror into patients in the manner of ‘cholera’ or ‘cancer’.

Influenza virus as a monster, by E Noble, c.1918. Wellcome Library

Influenza virus as a monster, by E Noble, c.1918. Wellcome Library

Yet while influenza may not be a particularly metaphorical disease, its protean symptomatology lends itself to a wide range of cultural and metaphorical productions. This was particularly the case in the 1890s, when Europe suffered a series of epidemics of ‘Russian’ influenza. The flu, which first erupted in St Petersburg in the autumn of 1889, was peculiarly debilitating, sparking searing headaches, fatigue, and ‘nervous’ conditions ranging from neurasthenia to depression and psychosis. It also combined with respiratory diseases such as bronchitis, instigating fatal pneumonias that carried off several prominent members of the Victorian establishment, including Queen Victoria’s grandson the Duke of Clarence.

State-sponsored medical reports into the pandemics, contemporary newspaper accounts, and writings of prominent doctors and celebrity patients all concur in identifying influenza as the ur-pandemic disease of modern times and in viewing it as a product of new scientific ways of ‘knowing’ the disease emergent from the 1890s. These discourses increasingly focused on the respiratory and nervous complications of influenza. At the same time, medico-scientific constructions were amplified by new telegraphic technologies and competition between mass-market newspapers, making the Russian flu a site for sensation and a barometer of fin-de- siècle social and cultural anxieties.

In late Victorian and early Edwardian England, these anxieties were a product partly of medical statistics and partly of bacteriology and theories of emotional pathology. They can best be understood through an examination of biopolitical discourses aimed at regulating the ‘dread’ of infectious disease. While Britain was at peace, dread of influenza was a tool of biopolitics and biopower. In 1918, however, Britain was at war, resulting in the politicisation of dread and the stricter policing of negative emotions. The Spanish flu both drew on these discourses and undermined them, disrupting the propaganda effort and destabilising medical attempts to regulate civilian responses to the pandemic.

Mark Honigsbaum recently completed his PhD within the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London, and is currently Research Assistant at the Institute and Museum for the History of Medicine at the University of Zurich.

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