1889–1890 pandemic

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1889-1890 pandemic "Russian Flu"
Everyone has Influenza - The Round of Doctors and Druggists.jpg
The 12 January 1890, edition of the Paris satirical magazine Le Grelot [fr] depicted an unfortunate influenza sufferer bowled along by a parade of doctors, druggists, skeleton musicians and dancing girls representing quinine and antipyrine
DiseaseInfluenza or coronavirus disease (disputed)
Virus strainA/H3N8, A/H2N2, or coronavirus OC43 (disputed)
First outbreakBukhara, Russian Empire
Date1889 – 1890
Suspected cases300-900 million (estimate)
1 million (estimate)
Suspected cases have not been confirmed as being due to this strain by laboratory tests, although some other strains may have been ruled out.

The 1889–1890 flu pandemic, also known as the "Asiatic flu" or "Russian flu", was a deadly pandemic that killed about 1 million people worldwide.[1][2] It was the last great pandemic of the 19th century.[3]

The most reported effects of the pandemic took place October 1889 – December 1890, with recurrences in March – June 1891, November 1891 – June 1892, winter 1893–1894 and early 1895.

It is not known for certain what agent was responsible for the pandemic. Since the 1950s it has been conjectured to be Influenza A virus subtype H2N2.[4][5][6] A 1999 seroarcheological study asserted the strain to be Influenza A virus subtype H3N8.[7] A 2005 genomic virological study says that "it is tempting to speculate" that the virus might not have been actually an influenza virus, but human coronavirus OC43.[5] Danish researchers reached a similar conclusion in 2020, in a yet-unpublished study.[8]

Outbreak and spread[edit]

Modern transport infrastructure assisted the spread of the 1889 influenza. The 19 largest European countries, including the Russian Empire, had 202,887 km of railroads and transatlantic travel by boat took less than six days (not significantly different than current travel time by air, given the time scale of the global spread of a pandemic).[7] It was the first pandemic to spread not just through Eurasia, but throughout the world.[9]

The flu was first reported in the Central Asian city of Bukhara in the Russian Empire, in May 1889, with up to two-thirds of the local population dying.[10][11][9] Through the Trans-Caspian railway, it was able to spread further into Samarkand by August, and Tomsk, 3,200 km away by October.[9] Since the Trans-Siberian Railway had not yet been constructed, spread in the eastern direction was slowed down, but it reached the westernmost station of the Trans-Caspian, Krasnovodsk (now known as Türkmenbaşy), and from there the Volga trade routes which carried it by November to Saint Petersburg (infecting 180,000 of the city's under one million inhabitants) and Moscow.[9][12] By mid-November Kiev was infected, and the next month the Lake Baikal region was as well, followed by the rest of Siberia and Sakhalin by the end of the year.[9]

From St. Petersburg, the flu spread via the Baltic shipping trade to Vaxholm in early November 1889, and then to Stockholm and the rest of Sweden, infecting 60% of the population within eight weeks.[9] First Norway, and then Denmark, followed soon after.[9] The German Empire first received it in Poznań in December, and on the 12th, 600 workers were reported sick in Berlin and Spandau, with the cases in the city reaching 150,000 within a few days and ultimately half of its 1.5 million inhabitants.[9] Vienna was also infected around the same time.[9] Rome was reached by 17 December.[9] The flu also arrived in Paris that month, and towards its end had spread to Grenoble, Toulon, Toulouse, Lyon, and Ajaccio.[9] At this point Spain was also infected, killing up to 300 a day in Madrid.[9] London got it the same time, from where it then spread quickly to Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Dublin.[9]

The first case on American soil was reported on 18 December 1889.[9] It then quickly spread throughout the East Coast and all the way to Chicago and Kansas in days.[9] The first death, Thomas Smith of Canton, Massachusetts, was reported on 25 December.[9] San Francisco and other cities were also reached before the month was over, with the total US death toll at about 13,000.[9] From there it spread south to Mexico and further down, reaching Buenos Aires by 2 February.[9]

Port Natal in South Africa was reached in November 1889, while India received it in February 1890, as did Singapore and Indonesia by March.[9] These were followed by Japan, Australia, and New Zealand by April, and then China in May, and then returned to its original starting point in Central Asia.[9]

In four months it had spread throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Deaths peaked in Saint Petersburg on 1 December 1889, and in the United States during the week of 12 January 1890. The median time between the first reported case and peak mortality was five weeks.[7] In Malta, the Asiatic Flu took hold between January 1889 and March 1890, with a fatality rate of 4% (39 deaths), and a resurgence in January–May 1892 with 66 fatalities (3.3% case fatality).[13] When this flu began, whether it was contagious was debated, but its quick action and pervasiveness across all climates and terrains proved that it was.[11]

A line map of the world, with dates in red (1889) and blue (1890) indicating when the influenza pandemic arrived in various cities.
Map showing recorded dates of the influenza epidemic in 1889 and 1890.[14]


Medical treatment[edit]

There was no standard treatment of the flu, with Quinine and Phenazone used, as well as small doses of Strychnine and larger ones of whiskey and brandy, and as cheaper treatments linseed, salt and warm water, and glycerin.[9] Many people also thought that fasting would 'starve' the fever, based on the belief that the body would not produce as much heat with less food; this was in fact poor medical advice.[9] Furthermore, many doctors still believed in the miasma theory of diseases, and neglected the possibility of infectious spread of disease.[9] For example, notable professors of the University of Vienna, Hermann Nothnagel and Otto Kahler claimed that the disease was not contagious.[9]

Public health[edit]

A result of the Asiatic flu in Malta is that influenza became for the first time a compulsorily notifiable illness.[15]

Identification of virus subtype responsible[edit]

Influenza virus[edit]

Researchers have tried for many years to identify the subtypes of Influenza A responsible for the 1889–1890, 1898–1900 and 1918 epidemics. Initially, this work was primarily based on "seroarcheology"—the detection of antibodies to influenza infection in the sera of elderly people—and it was thought that the 1889–1890 pandemic was caused by Influenza A subtype H2, the 1898–1900 epidemic by subtype H3, and the 1918 pandemic by subtype H1.[16] With the confirmation of H1N1 as the cause of the 1918 flu pandemic following identification of H1N1 antibodies in exhumed corpses,[16] reanalysis of seroarcheological data has indicated that Influenza A subtype H3 (possibly the H3N8 subtype), is a more likely cause for the 1889–1890 pandemic.[7][16]


After the SARS epidemic, virologists started sequencing and comparing human and animal coronaviruses, and comparison of two virus strains in the Betacoronavirus 1 species, Bovine coronavirus and Human coronavirus OC43 indicated that they had a most recent common ancestor in the late 19th century, with several methods yielding most probable dates around 1890.[5][17] Authors speculated that an introduction of the former strain to the human population might have caused the epidemic.[5] In 2020, Danish researchers Lone Simonsen and Anders Gorm Pedersen similarly calculated that the human coronavirus OC43 had split from bovine coronavirus about 130 years ago, i.e. approximately coinciding with the pandemic in 1889–1890. The calculation was based on genetic comparisons between bovine coronavirus and different strains of OC43. Their research is yet to be published.[8]


Patterns of mortality[edit]

The young, the old, and those with underlying conditions were most at risk, and usually died of pneumonia or heart attack caused by physical stress.[9] Due to generally lower standards of living, worse hygiene, and less-developed medicine, the numbers of vulnerable people were higher than in the contemporary world.[9]

Notable infections[edit]


Initial pandemic[edit]



See also[edit]


  1. ^ Baudouin's death was officially attributed to influenza, although many rumors attributed it to other causes.
  2. ^ Woolson fell from the window of her room while likely under the influence of laudanum, which she may have been taking to relieve symptoms of influenza.


  1. ^ Shally-Jensen, Michael, ed. (2010). "Influenza". Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Social Issues. 2. ABC-CLIO. p. 1510. ISBN 978-0-31339205-4. The Asiatic flu killed roughly one million individuals
  2. ^ Williams, Michelle Harris; Preas, Michael Anne (2015). "Influenza and Pneumonia Basics Facts and Fiction" (PDF). Maryland Department of Health - Developmental Disabilities Administration. University of Maryland. Pandemics. Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 December 2017. Retrieved 25 March 2020. Asiatic Flu 1889-1890 1 million
  3. ^ Garmaroudi, Farshid S. (30 October 2007). "The Last Great Uncontrolled Plague of Mankind". Science Creative Quarterly. Retrieved 25 March 2020. The Asiatic flu, 1889-1890: It was the last great pandemic of the nineteenth century.
  4. ^ Hilleman, Maurice R. (19 August 2002). "Realities and enigmas of human viral influenza: pathogenesis, epidemiology and control". Vaccine. Elsevier. 20 (25–26): 3068–3087. doi:10.1016/S0264-410X(02)00254-2. PMID 12163258.
  5. ^ a b c d Vijgen, Leen; Keyaerts, Els; Moës, Elien; Thoelen, Inge; Wollants, Elke; Lemey, Philippe; Vandamme, Anne-Mieke; Van Ranst, Marc (2005). "Complete Genomic Sequence of Human Coronavirus OC43: Molecular Clock Analysis Suggests a Relatively Recent Zoonotic Coronavirus Transmission Event". Journal of Virology. 79 (3): 1595–1604. doi:10.1128/JVI.79.3.1595-1604.2005. PMC 544107. PMID 15650185.
  6. ^ Madrigal, Alexis (26 April 2010). "1889 Pandemic Didn't Need Planes to Circle Globe in 4 Months". Wired Science. Archived from the original on 29 April 2010.
  7. ^ a b c d Valleron, Alain-Jacques; Cori, Anne; Valtat, Sophie; Meurisse, Sofia; Carrat, Fabrice; Boëlle, Pierre-Yves (11 May 2010). "Transmissibility and geographic spread of the 1889 influenza pandemic". PNAS. 107 (19): 8778–8781. Bibcode:2010PNAS..107.8778V. doi:10.1073/pnas.1000886107. PMC 2889325. PMID 20421481.
  8. ^ a b Knudsen, Jeppe Kyhne (13 August 2020). "Overraskende opdagelse: Coronavirus har tidligere lagt verden ned" [Surprising discovery: Coronavirus has previously brought down the world]. DR (in Danish). Retrieved 13 August 2020. A presumed influenza pandemic in 1889 was actually caused by coronavirus, Danish research show.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae The 1889-1890 Flu Pandemic: The History of the 19th Century’s Last Major Global Outbreak (Kindle ed.). Charles River Editors.
  10. ^ Ryan, Jeffrey R., ed. (2008). "Chapter 1 - Past Pandemics and Their Outcome". Pandemic Influenza: Emergency Planning and Community Preparedness. CRC Press. p. 16. ISBN 978-1-42006088-1. The Asiatic Flu of 1889-1890 was first reported in Bukhara, Russia
  11. ^ a b Mouritz, A. (1921). The Flu. Retrieved 5 April 2020.
  12. ^ "The 1889 Russian Flu In The News". Circulating Now from the N.I.H. National Institutes of Health. 13 August 2014. Archived from the original on 3 February 2020. Retrieved 25 March 2020. In November 1889, a rash of cases of influenza-like-illness appeared in St. Petersburg, Russia. Soon, the "Russia Influenza" spread
  13. ^ Savona-Ventura, Charles (2005). "Past Influenza pandemics and their effect in Malta". Malta Medical Journal. 17 (3): 16–19. Retrieved 25 March 2020. 1889-90 pandemic – The Asiatic Flu [...] by the end of March 1890. The case fatality rate approximated 4.0% [Table 1]. A resurgence of the infection became apparent in January–May 1892 with a total of 2017 reported cases and 66 deaths [case fatality rate 3.3%]
  14. ^ Parsons, Henry Franklin (1891). Report on the Influenza Epidemic of 1889–90. Local Government Board.
  15. ^ Cilia, Rebekah (15 March 2020). "How Malta dealt with past influenza pandemics, with today's being 'inevitable'". The Malta Independent. Compulsory notification of infectious disease [...] Influenza was made a notifiable infection on the 20th January 1890 with the appearance of 1889-90, Asiatic Flu
  16. ^ a b c Dowdle, W. R. (1999). "Influenza A virus recycling revisited". Bulletin of the World Health Organization. Geneva: World Health Organization. 77 (10): 820–828. PMC 2557748. PMID 10593030.
  17. ^ Vijgen, Leen; Keyaerts, Els; Lemey, Philippe; Maes, Piet; Van Reeth, Kristien; Nauwynck, Hans; Pensaert, Maurice; Van Ranst, Marc (2006). "Evolutionary History of the Closely Related Group 2 Coronaviruses: Porcine Hemagglutinating Encephalomyelitis Virus, Bovine Coronavirus, and Human Coronavirus OC43". Journal of Virology. 80 (14): 7270–7274. doi:10.1128/JVI.02675-05. PMC 1489060. PMID 16809333.

Further reading[edit]