In 1872, a pandemic influenza outbreak brought the US to its knees:

“The streets are almost deserted.” –Washington, D.C.

“A Sunday quiet prevails upon the streets.” –Springfield, OR

“The streets yesterday looked deserted.” –San Francisco, CA

“The street cars have stopped.” – Erie, PA 1

And yet, if you look at the mortality rates for influenza in 1872, it’s not a particularly impressive year — if anything, the influenza death rates were exceptionally low that year.  At least, they were low in humans.  1872 brought a pandemic equine influenza, laying low almost every horse in North America.

On the evening of October 21st only a few animals were affected, but on the morning of the 22d there was scarcely an animal of the equine species that was not affected.  Horses, mules, and even a zebra.  More than twenty thousand were suffering in different degrees. 2

An estimated 3-4% of the tens of thousands of horses in New York died. 2 But the deaths weren’t the biggest problem:

The actual money losses, in an epizootic of influenza, are more in the way of the loss of work and the complete stagnation of trade in all departments, than in the number of deaths.  Yet even in this sense it may prove more ruinous than would a disease having a less universal away though far more fatal to the animals attacked. 3

Without horses, business slammed to a halt; the mail didn’t run, groceries didn’t reach the cities, crops weren’t harvested or transported.  After a few weeks, most of the horses recovered and business followed, but the epizootic swept across the country1  (intensely tracked by the newspapers of the day, warning each city in turn that it was going to be attacked), finally fizzling out the following summer in British Columbia.

Equine influenza map, 1872

  1. Adoniram B. Judson, MD (1873). History and Course of the Epizootic Among Horses Upon the North American Continent in 1872-1873. Public Health Papers and Reports. American Public Health Association. Hurd and Houghton, New York, 88-109[][]
  2. Annual report of the Department of Health of the State of New Jersey. By The New Jersey State Dept. of Health, 1877 (“Epizootic influenza”, p. 160)  [][]
  3. Text book of veterinary medicine, Volume IV.  By James Law, F.R.C.V.S.  1906 []