In 1798, the famed Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population, which suggested the epidemics served to check population growth, preventing a species from exceeding the carrying capacity of our environment. Disease is one such check, and throughout history one can find many prominent examples of sickness culling the population. These waves of sickness also bring mass hysteria once people see that a disease is becoming epidemic. The reason that plagues are so easy to find in history is because the media reacts, reflecting the mood of the people and inciting more panic with alarmist articles featuring no information. Over the course of the last year and a half, Virginia Tech undergraduate students have been researching an epidemic in recent history, the Russian flu, which swept the world between 1889 and 1890.
The Russian flu, known as such because of its origination near Moscow, is significant because it is the first epidemic to occur following the development of global communication; for the first time in history, people were able to communicate faster than the sickness was spreading. This was important because although this particular flu was very virile, it was not particularly deadly, and being alerted of this before the sickness spread to a new area allowed the world to prepare better. As a result, with the invention of the telegraph, scientists were able to track the progression of both the morbidity and mortality of the illness. Additionally, media coverage of the sickness was widespread as well, enabling the students to track it by following coverage in the media of the time. The goal of this research was to perform a case study of the relationship between the spread of the disease and the spread of related information. This case study analyzed the epidemic by using geographical representations, depictions of the impact that the disease had on society through illustrations in media, and diagnosis of the disease from the perspective of a contemporary physician. In addition, the students compiled more than 200 articles to a database of texts related to the flu.
Before research began, the undergraduate students who would do the research were picked based on their focus of study and foreign language skills. The ten students were then divided into three groups, each with a different focus of research. Many of the documents that these teams analyzed came from Europe and were written and mapped in native languages; as such, members of the research group included students fluent in English, Spanish, French, and German. Of the 200 odd articles included in the database, many are in their original language with translations done by undergraduate researchers attached to them.
Much of the project involved working with published information such as newspapers and maps. One of the groups took on the role of analyzing geographical data related to the flu. By using printed newspaper reports to map the spread of the disease and the introduction of public health measures, the group was able to chart the morbidity and mortality rates of the flu as it spread. As a part of their research, the group used these charts and a map from the 1890s to create an animated map showing the spread of the disease across the world in dated, two week periods.
Another group of students analyzed the disease from a physician’s perspective. Physicians of the time were under extreme duress, as alarmist news reports of the apparent deadliness of the disease pressured doctors to make correct diagnoses and treat the illness properly. However, in spite of having a high morbidity rate, the Russian flu was not a deadly pandemic – only around a million people died of it worldwide. At the time, it was believed that the sickness stemmed from environmental factors such as temperature and atmospheric pressure. Doctors kept detailed records of patients and symptoms, including factors such as environmental and atmospheric temperatures, because of fears associated with the rapid spread and aggression of the outbreak. Veronica Kimmerly, one of the undergraduate researchers on the project, asserted that “Since this was before germ theory, people were afraid that cholera would come after the flu since they are both seasonal sicknesses. Flu shows up in winter, and then in spring, cholera shows up because there is a lot of unclean water around.” Uncertain of the cause of the illness, doctors treated patients based on individual symptoms as opposed to treating all cases of the flu identically. People were advised to stay inside, warm, and away from the weather. In doing so, people isolated themselves from people with the sickness.
The final group of students worked to tie together the whole project by exemplifying how global communication influenced the spread of information regarding the disease – the social impacts. Many of the text records from the initial onset of the pandemic were alarmist, feeding the frenzy of scared citizens with suggestions that the sickness might lead to cholera. According to Kimmerly, “When this flu broke out, people thought that the flu would not be too bad, but assumed that cholera would be awful in the spring as a result.” One of the biggest impacts of this illness was that it helped prove that cholera and the flu were unrelated, leading to advances in treatment for both. Once the flu was discovered to not be very deadly, the lighthearted portrayal of the sickness in the media helped prevent mass hysteria even as it continued to spread. The group states, “From our numbers, roughly two-thirds of every major city got the flu.” Examples found by the group include pictures of a tent used for treatment, two musicians performing a song about influenza, and clothes being distributed to sick families. There is also an array of cartoons related to the illness.
The Russian flu is not a very well-known pandemic; it did not eradicate one-third of the populace, as did plague. However, this makes it all the more important for information to be readily available, a task that these Virginia Tech students went about achieving admirably. The Russian flu was far more influential than it is given credit for. Being the first pandemic to occur once global communication was established helped to set the basis for studies on the relationship between the media and the masses during times of crisis.