The Great Dread: Influenza in the United Kingdom in Peace and War, 1889-1919
Both the 1918-19 ‘Spanish’ influenza pandemic and the 1889-93 ‘Russian’ influenza pandemic resulted in widespread morbidity and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Britons. Yet although the mortality from the pandemics exceeded those of earlier nineteenth century cholera epidemics, it has been argued that neither the Spanish flu nor the Russian flu had pronounced social impacts. Indeed, the 1918-19 outbreak has been called the ‘forgotten’ pandemic, and although in recent years there has been a huge growth in academic studies of the Spanish flu this scholarship has not usually extended to the 1889-93 pandemic or to the interpandemic period. Rather than interrogating the supposed ‘absence’ of social impacts to the pandemics, this thesis takes a narrative approach by tracing how in the late nineteenth century influenza became an object of biomedicine and biopower. The central contention is that influenza’s character is a palimpsest: a product of medical, cultural and historiographical discourses. Drawing on official publications, newspaper reports, medical journals, and the accounts of prominent doctors and celebrity patients, I argue that the ‘modern’ notion of influenza is a product of new scientific ways of ‘knowing’ the disease that first emerged in the 1890s. By the middle 1890s these narratives increasingly focused on the respiratory and nervous complications of influenza. At the same time, these discourses 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. These anxieties were partly a product of medical statistics, partly of bacteriology and theories of emotional pathology, and can best be understood 4 through an examination of medical discourses aimed at regulating the ‘dread’ of infectious diseases. Tracing these discourses through the interpandemic period, I argue that while Britain was at peace, dread of influenza was a tool of biopolitics and biopower. By 1918, however, Britain was at war, resulting in the politicisation of dread and the stricter policing of negative emotions. The Spanish flu, I argue, both drew on these discourses and undermined them, disrupting the propaganda effort and destabilizing medical attempts to regulate civilian responses to the pandemic.
- Theses