The huge 1918 influenza pandemic, caused by the great-grandfather of today’s swine-origin pandemic H1N1, wasn’t the first time influenza was seen in people — not by a couple of thousand years. 1 Seasonal flu was around before it, just as it has been since; and epidemics and pandemics regularly swept through the world before 1918.

The charts below, published in 1921,2 show  completely modern-looking patterns of influenza.

Note the 1890/91 pandemic of “Russian flu”: 3

Within the space of a few weeks in 1890 this disease prostrated hundreds of thousands in Europe and America, enormously increasing the death rate, and leaving many of its surviving victims in a condition of pronounced debility for many months.  For a time it closed factories and workshops, it checked business, and obstructed the prosecution of many enterprises. 4

Influenza - England and Wales, 1845 (Vaughn)

But also note the classic seasonal peaks before and after 1890:

Influenza - Massachusetts, 1887 (Vaughn)

In spite of all we’ve learned about influenza since 1845, we haven’t been able to do much to change its patterns.

  1. Stephen Dando-Collins, in “Caesar’s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar’s Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome“, cites claims that influenza kept many of Julius Caesar’s legions from sailing to his assistance during his civil war with Pompey the Great, in 49 BC[]
  2. Warren T. Vaughn (1921). Influenza: An Epidemiologic Study The American Journal of Hygiene Monographic Series[]
  3. So-called in Western Europe; but the Russians called it “Siberian Fever”, and Siberians called it “Chinese Distemper”.  It supposedly originated in Bokhara, in present-day Uzbekistan, according to Encyclopaedia Medica, Volume V. By Chalmers Watson. New York, Longmans, Green, & co. 1900 []
  4. The Cottage Physician. For Individual and Family Use.  King-Richardson Publishing Co., Springfield, MA 1897[]