Psst! Don’t mention the flu!

by Instant Noodle

“It is no exaggeration to say that there is hardly a single compound here in which there is not an influenza patient, generally a child or an adult.” Nigerian Pioneer.

In Europe also, by a singular coincidence, the disease is almost entirely confined to the same classes.

After the horrors of the war, Europe now has another burden to deal with. It is Spanish Flu, and it will eventually kill more people than actually died in the war. A brief history of flu, then.

Influenza, as I think I have told you in our earlier conversations, first visited these shores in the year 1836, in the form of a catarrh accompanied by a tendency to fever. Towards the end of the century the Russian variety, with constantly changing symptoms, became prevalent. Your grandfather has told me that when he had it, everything he ate tasted, in his rude but picturesque phrase, of “gunpowder and rotten eggs.” Owing to the passion for abbreviation, to which I have never succumbed, the complaint was vulgarly known as ” flu,” and seemed to have died out when it was re-imported from Spain twenty years later, though some people attributed it to the “hidden hand.” Mexican, Mesopotamian and Patagonian varieties followed, but the disease was finally stamped out by the efforts of a special Ministry of Influenza whose headquarters were at the British Museum, and which employed a staff of five thousand officials with a minimum salary of ten pounds a week.

By December 1918, things are getting serious.

By order of the Local Government Board influenza has been made a notifiable disease. We sincerely hope that this will be a lesson to it.

Nobody knows what causes it…

According to the Newcastle Food Vigilance Committee the so-called influenza epidemic is due to eating bad bacon. If the patient is seen breaking out into a rasher he is almost certain to have got it.

…how it spreads…

The spread of influenza is said to be greatly assisted by “germ-carriers.” We can’t think why germs should be carried. Let ’em walk.

…how to treat the symptoms…

” Always go to bed with influenza,” says a Medical Officer of Health. It is, of course, a mere matter of taste, but we ourselves always prefer to go to bed without it.

…or control it,

” Our chief hope of control of Influenza lies in further investigation.” Persons who insist on having influenza between now and Easter will do so at their own risk.

and it is causing widespread panic,

The inconveniences that attend influenza reached their climax a few days ago when an occupant of a crowded tube train blew the nose of the man next to him in mistake for his own.

It is the largest disease epidemic in living memory.

“In my opinion the Asiatic cholera, 1850-1851, took more lives and caused more anxiety than the flu. In Spanish Town, with a population of 5,000, 7,800 died.”

Daily Gleaner (Kingston, Jamaica).

We agree that the ‘flu mortality can hardly have been greater than this.

The government are going to have to take drastic action.

“It is highly probable,” says the chief medical officer of the Local Government Board, “that masks will be necessary to ensure freedom from infection from influenza.” People who refuse to adopt this simple preventative should be compelled by law to breathe exclusively through their ears.

I mentioned a few posts ago that it was going to be a policy to include a cartoon with every post. The funny thing is, I couldn’t see a single cartoon about the epidemic. This is despite the fact that it is very frequently referenced (although never fully featured) during the winter of 1918, throughout 1919 and even into 1920.

Why is this? You could argue that it is to grim a subject to make cartoons about, which is certainly true. It is also true that there is a lot else on, namely the general election and the reconstruction effort, so it got rather sidelined.

But, I think the main reason may be that, certainly in the early days, there was a bit of a moratorium on talking about things likely to demoralize the public. In fact, the moniker of “Spanish” Flu was largely applied not because it originated there or even was worse there, but because the press of neutral Spain had no obligation to public morale, and so openly discussed the horrors. A bad PR move worldwide, it would turn out.

For some judge of the severity, how about this front page of the Daily Telegram in the US,

Anyhow, nothing’s too grim to make jokes of, though.

A youth charged at Marylebone with stealing a motor-car produced a doctor’s certificate which said, ” This must be due to the after-effects of influenza.” The doctor, it seems, had carelessly advised him to take something for it.

(November 27th, 1918)