No time for panic: British responses to influenza in peace and war, 1889-1919 (360G-Wellcome-086955_Z_08_Z)
The 1918 influenza pandemic represents the worst outbreak of infectious disease in Britain in modern times. Although the virus swept the world in three waves between March 1918 and April 1919, in Britain the majority of the estimated 228,000 fatalities occurred in the autumn of 1918. In London alone deaths at the peak of the epidemic were 55.5 per 1,000- the highest since the 1849 cholera epidemic. Yet in the capital as in other great cities and towns throughout Britain, there was none of the panic that had accompanied earlier 19th century outbreaks of infectious disease at the heart of urban populations. Instead, the British response to the 'Spanish Lady' as the pandemic strain of flu was familiarly known was remarkably sanguine. As The Times commented at the height of the pandemic: 'Never since the Black Death has such a plague swept over the face of the world, [and] never, perhaps, has a plague been more stoically accepted.' The apparent absence of marked social responses to the 1918 influenza is a phenomenon much remarked on in the literature of the pandemic, as is the apparent paradox that despite the widespread morbidity and high mortality the pandemic had little apparent impact on public institutions and left few traces in public memory. However, to date no one has explored the deeper cultural 'narratives' that informed and conditioned these responses. Was Britain really a more stoical and robust nation in 1918, or was the absence of medical and other social responses a reflection of the particular social and political conditions that prevailed in Britain during the First World War and then medical nosologies and cultural perceptions of influenza? And if the 1918 pandemic was 'overshadowed,' as one writer puts it, by the war and the peace that followed the Armistice, what explains the similarly muted response to the Russian flu pandemic of the early 1890's, a disease outbreak that coincided with a long period of peace and stability in Britain? In this project I aim to show that, contrary to previous studies, both the 1918 and the 1889-92 Russian flu pandemic were the objects of much deeper public concern and anxiety than has previously been acknowledged and that the morbidity of prominent members of British society, coupled with the high mortality, occasioned widespread 'dread' and in some cases alarm. However, in 1918 at least, government departments and public institutions actively suppressed these concerns for the sake of the war effort and the maintenance of national morale.
£657 29 Aug 2008