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1889–1890 pandemic

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

The 1889–1890 pandemic, often referred to as the "Asiatic flu"[1] or "Russian flu", was a worldwide respiratory viral pandemic. It was the last great pandemic of the 19th century, and is among the deadliest pandemics in history.[2][3] The pandemic killed about 1 million people out of a world population of about 1.5 billion (0.067% of population).[4][5] The most reported effects of the pandemic took place from October 1889 to December 1890, with recurrences in March to June 1891, November 1891 to June 1892, the northern winter of 1893–1894, and early 1895.

According to researchers' estimates, excess mortality from Russian influenza in the Russian Empire for the period 1889–1890 could be from 60,000 to 90,000 people, with lethality from the virus, a little more than 0.2%.[6]

Although contemporaries described the pandemic as influenza and 20th-century scholars identified several influenza strains as the possible pathogen, several authors from the early 2020s suggest that it may have been caused by human coronavirus OC43.[7][8][9][10]

Outbreak and spread[edit]

Modern transport infrastructure assisted the spread of the 1889 pandemic. The 19 largest European countries, including the Russian Empire, had about 200,000 km of railroads, and transatlantic travel by sea took less than six days (not significantly different from current travel time by air, given the timescale of the global spread of a pandemic).[11] It was the first pandemic to spread not just through a region such as Eurasia, but worldwide.[12]

It is conventionally believed that the disease was first reported in May 1889 in the Central Asian city of Bukhara (modern Uzbekistan), then the capital of the Emirate of Bukhara, a protectorate of the Russian Empire.[1][13][12] This goes back to publications of a local physician and follower of the miasma theory Oskar Heyfelder, who ignored the lack of catarrhal symptoms in the outbreak.[14] Both a local independent commission of four doctors in August 1889 and historians in 2023 identified the infectious agent in Bukhara from May to August 1889 as not influenza, but malaria, which is endemic in the region, and the latter suggested anomalously cold and snowy winter and anomalously high ground water levels as possible reasons for the severeness of the outbeak.[14]

Differences between the Bukhara epidemic and the Russian flu[14]
Bukhara epidemic Russian flu
Incubation period
1–2 weeks 1–3 days
High body temperature; loss of strength; reduction of body temperature ended with profuse sweating, no sweating at high temperature; enlargement of spleen and liver after the disease, anaemia. Absence of cough and respiratory system complications High body temperature, collapse of strength, during the course of the disease the patient either sweated or did not sweat; cough; complications of the disease ended in bronchitis and pneumonia.
5 % or more 0,2%

Most likely the first outbreak of Russian flu occurred in Western Siberia – Tomsk province. It was preceded by an epizootic of pneumonia in cattle.[6]

Spread of influenza within the Russian Empire in October 1889[6]

It is also conventionally believed that the newly built Trans-Caspian railway enabled the disease to spread farther into Samarkand by August, and Tomsk, 3,200 km away, by October.[12] However, the Russian military had not detected any flu in Samarkand in August, and despite a significant military presence along the railway the first flu cases were not diagnosed in the Turkestan Military District at all until late November.[15]

Despite the fact that the Trans-Siberian Railway had not yet been constructed (which is often cited as the reason for slow transmission of the virus to European Russia), the anomalous rise in flu cases was detected in the military in the second half of October from multiple European cities all the way to 108th meridian east.[15]

By November the pandemic had reached Saint Petersburg (infecting 180,000 of the city's under one million inhabitants) and Moscow.[12][16] By mid-November Kyiv 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.[12]

From St. Petersburg, the infection 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.[12] Norway, and then Denmark, followed soon after.[12] The German Empire first received it in Posen in December, and on 12 November 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.[12] Vienna was infected around the same time.[12] Rome was reached by 17 December.[12] The flu also arrived in Paris in December, and towards the end of the month had spread to Grenoble, Toulon, Toulouse and Lyon on the mainland, and Ajaccio on Corsica.[12] At this point Spain was also infected, killing up to 300 a day in Madrid.[12] It reached London at the same time, from where it spread quickly within Great Britain and Ireland to Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Dublin.[12]

The first case on American soil was reported on 18 December 1889.[12] It then quickly spread throughout the East Coast and all the way to Chicago and Kansas in days.[12] The first American death, Thomas Smith of Canton, Massachusetts, was reported on 25 December.[12] San Francisco and other cities were also reached before the month was over, with the total US death toll at about 13,000.[12] From there it spread to Mexico and to South America, reaching Buenos Aires by 2 February.[12]

India received it in February 1890, and Singapore and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) did by March.[12] These were followed by Japan, Australia, and New Zealand by April, and then China in May; the infection continued to spread, reaching its original starting point in Central Asia.[12]

Cases in Africa began to appear in port cities in late December 1889 and in January 1890, although there may have been an early outbreak in Durban, South Africa, in November 1889.[12]

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.[11] 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 to May 1892 with 66 fatalities (3.3% case fatality rate).[17] When this flu began, it was debated whether it was in fact a human-to-human contagious disease; its virulence and rapid spread across all climates and terrains demonstrated that it was.[13]

A line map of the world, with dates in red (1889) and blue (1890) indicating when the pandemic arrived in various cities.
Map showing recorded dates of the epidemic in 1889 and 1890[18]


Medical treatment[edit]

There was no standard treatment of flu; quinine and phenazone were used, as well as small doses of strychnine and larger ones of whisky and brandy, and as cheaper treatments linseed, salt and warm water, and glycerin.[12] 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.[12] Furthermore, many doctors still believed in the miasma theory of disease rather than infectious spread;[12] for example, notable professors of the University of Vienna, Hermann Nothnagel and Otto Kahler considered that the disease was not contagious.[12]

Public health[edit]

US public health departments did little prevention in advance, even though they knew through transoceanic telegraph cable reports, that the Russian influenza was on its way.[19]

A result of the Asiatic flu in Malta is that influenza became for the first time a compulsorily notifiable illness.[20]

Identification of virus 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.[21][22][23] 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.[24] With the confirmation of H1N1 as the cause of the 1918 flu pandemic following identification of H1N1 antibodies in exhumed corpses,[24] reanalysis of seroarcheological data suggested Influenza A subtype H3 (possibly the H3N8 subtype) as a more likely cause for the 1889–1890 pandemic.[11][24][25] This view is corroborated by converging seroarcheological and mortality data. In blood sera collected in 1956–1957, birth cohorts likely exposed early in life to the 1889–1890 pandemic had the highest percentages of detectable antibodies against the H3 strain that was later responsible for the 1968 pandemic. Correspondingly, excess mortality decreased sharply during that pandemic for these cohorts, who were 78 years old or older at the time.[26]


After the 2002–2004 SARS outbreak, virologists started sequencing human and animal coronaviruses. A comparison of two virus strains in the Betacoronavirus 1 species bovine coronavirus and human coronavirus OC43 indicated that the two had a most recent common ancestor in the late 19th century, with several methods yielding most probable dates around 1890. The authors speculated that an introduction of the former strain to the human population, rather than influenza, might have caused the 1889 epidemic.[22] A Belgian team performed a similar analysis of OC43, identifying a crossover date in the late 1800s.[9]

In 2021, examination of contemporary medical reports noted that the pandemic's clinical manifestations resembled those of COVID-19 rather than influenza, with notable similarities including multisystem disease, loss of taste and smell perception, central nervous system symptoms and sequelae similar to long COVID.[7][10][9] Other scientists have pointed to the fact the mortality curve for Russian Flu is J-shaped, as found in COVID-19, with little mortality in the very young and high mortality in the old, rather than the U-shaped mortality found in influenza infections, with high mortality in the very young and very old.[27]

While a small sample of dental remains has been tested and lends weight to the hypothesis,[28] there is still no scientific consensus that the 1889–1890 outbreak was caused by a coronavirus, with one analysis of the literature suggesting that the evidence for this causality is still "conjectural".[29]

Before the first outbreak of Russian influenza, Tomsk province was experiencing an epizootic of pneumonia in cattle. Every year from June to November, up to 13,000 cattle, mostly from the Kulunda steppes, Barnaul district and Semipalatinsk region, were brought to Tomsk for slaughter. In autumn 1889, pneumonia was recorded among cattle in Tomsk. But despite the outbreak, the cattle were not isolated and moved freely through the streets of the city. Meat prices dropped to 1 ruble per pood. Because of the resulting disease, the inhabitants of the city either slaughtered the cattle or sold the animals very cheaply (a cow cost from 5 to 8 rubles). The inhabitants of Siberia hoped that with a drop in temperature the epizootic would subside. The newspapers wrote: "Siberians obediently waited for the onset of cold weather, with the appearance of which, however, the epizootic even more intensified, yes, in addition to it came and obnoxious Influenza. Notes on the relationship between influenza and animal diseases were found in the newspaper "Physician" 1889 г.: "...the connection of influenza with epizootics on horses, dogs and cats is undoubted; these epizootics have much in common with influenza...".These data are in favour of the theory that the "Russian influenza" of 1889 could have been caused by a coronavirus transmitted from cattle to humans.[6]

Patterns of mortality[edit]

Unlike most influenza pandemics such as the 1918 flu, primarily elderly people died in 1889.[8][30] Due to generally lower standards of living, worse hygiene, and poorer standard of medicine, the proportion of vulnerable people was higher than in the modern world.[12]

Notable infections[edit]


First outbreak[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. ^ a b 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
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Rosenwald, Michael S. (7 April 2020). "History's deadliest pandemics, from ancient Rome to modern America". Washington Post. Covid mortality figure frequently updated.
  4. ^ Shally-Jensen, Michael, ed. (2010). "Influenza". Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Social Issues. Vol. 2. ABC-CLIO. p. 1510. ISBN 978-0-31339205-4. The Asiatic flu killed roughly one million individuals
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ a b c d Ryazantsev, Sergey Vasilevich; Smirnov, Alexey Viktorovich (2023). "The Pandemic of the "Russian Flu" of 1889–1890: Occurrence, Spread, Demographic Losses". Sibirskie Istoricheskie Issledovaniia – Siberian Historical Research (in Russian). 2023 (2): 27–54. doi:10.17223/2312461X/40/2 (inactive 31 January 2024). Retrieved 9 January 2024.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: DOI inactive as of January 2024 (link)
  7. ^ a b Brüssow, Harald; Brüssow, Lutz (13 July 2021). "Clinical evidence that the pandemic from 1889 to 1891 commonly called the Russian flu might have been an earlier coronavirus pandemic". Microbial Biotechnology. 14 (5). Wiley: 1860–1870. doi:10.1111/1751-7915.13889. ISSN 1751-7915. PMC 8441924. PMID 34254725.
  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 shows.
  9. ^ a b c Van Ranst, Mark (22 December 2020). "Complete Genomic Sequence of Human Coronavirus OC43: Molecular Clock Analysis Suggests a Relatively Recent Zoonotic Coronavirus Transmission Event". Journal of Virology. 79 (3). Americal Society of Microbiology: 1595–1604. doi:10.1128/JVI.79.3.1595-1604.2005. PMC 544107. PMID 15650185.
  10. ^ a b King, Anthony (2 May 2020). "An uncommon cold". New Scientist. 246 (3280): 32–35. Bibcode:2020NewSc.246...32K. doi:10.1016/S0262-4079(20)30862-9. PMC 7252012. PMID 32501321.
  11. ^ a b c 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.
  12. ^ 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 River, Charles (16 June 2020). The 1889–1890 Flu Pandemic: The History of the 19th Century's Last Major Global Outbreak. Charles River Editors. ISBN 9798654504951.
  13. ^ a b Mouritz, A. (1921). The flu: a brief history of influenza in U.S. America, Europe, Hawaii. Honolulu, Hawaii, US: Advertiser Publishing Co. – via US National Library of Medicine – Digital Collections.
  14. ^ a b c Ryazantsev, Sergey V.; Smirnov, Alexey V. (1 March 2023). "Was the Bukhara Epidemic the Onset of the 1889–1890 "Russian Flu" Pandemic? (Socio-Demographic Study)" (PDF). Bylye Gody. 18 (1): 353–366. ISSN 2310-0028. Retrieved 9 January 2024.
  15. ^ a b На страницу книги kp.rusneb.ru (in Russian) Retrieved 9 April 2023
  16. ^ "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
  17. ^ 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%]
  18. ^ Parsons, Henry Franklin (1891). Report on the Influenza Epidemic of 1889–90. Local Government Board.
  19. ^ Tomes, Nancy (April 2010). ""Destroyer and Teacher": Managing the Masses during the 1918–1919 Influenza Pandemic". Public Health Reports. 125 (3_suppl): 48–62. doi:10.1177/00333549101250S308. ISSN 0033-3549. PMC 2862334. PMID 20568568.
  20. ^ 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
  21. ^ Hilleman, Maurice R. (19 August 2002). "Realities and enigmas of human viral influenza: pathogenesis, epidemiology and control". Vaccine. 20 (25–26). Elsevier: 3068–3087. doi:10.1016/S0264-410X(02)00254-2. PMID 12163258.
  22. ^ a b 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.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ a b c Dowdle, W. R. (1999). "Influenza A virus recycling revisited". Bulletin of the World Health Organization. 77 (10). Geneva: World Health Organization: 820–828. PMC 2557748. PMID 10593030.
  25. ^ Taubenberger, Jeffery K.; Morens, David M.; Fauci, Anthony S. (2007). "The Next Influenza Pandemic". JAMA. 297 (18): 2025–2027. doi:10.1001/jama.297.18.2025. ISSN 0098-7484. PMC 2504708. PMID 17488968.
  26. ^ Gagnon, Alain; Acosta, J. Enrique; Madrenas, Joaquin; Miller, Matthew S. (5 March 2015). "Is Antigenic Sin Always "Original?" Re-examining the Evidence Regarding Circulation of a Human H1 Influenza Virus Immediately Prior to the 1918 Spanish Flu". PLOS Pathogens. 11 (3): e1004615. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1004615. ISSN 1553-7374. PMC 4351064. PMID 25742615.
  27. ^ Honigsbaum, Mark (13 January 2022). "Was the Russian flu a 'coronavirus'? What the 1890s pandemic tells us about how Covid might end". Daily Telegraph.
  28. ^ Ramassy, Lindsay; Oumarou Hama, Hamadou; Costedoat, Caroline; Signoli, Michel; Verna, Emeline; La Scola, Bernard; Aboudharam, Gérard; Barbieri, Rémi; Drancourt, Michel (July 2022). "Paleoserology points to Coronavirus as possible causative pathogens of the 'Russian flu'". Microbial Biotechnology. 15 (7): 1943–1945. doi:10.1111/1751-7915.14058. PMC 9111311. PMID 35384322.
  29. ^ Brüssow, Harald (2021). "What we can learn from the dynamics of the 1889 'Russian flu' pandemic for the future trajectory of COVID-19". Microbial Biotechnology. 14 (6): 2244–2253. doi:10.1111/1751-7915.13916. PMC 8601188. PMID 34464023.
  30. ^ Kolata, Gina (14 February 2022). "An Undiscovered Coronavirus? The Mystery of the 'Russian Flu'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 16 February 2022.
  31. ^ "EMPRESS AUGUSTA DEAD". The New York Times. 8 January 1890. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  32. ^ "OBITUARY". The New York Times. 6 May 1891. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  33. ^ "DEATH OF EGYPT'S RULER". The New York Times. 8 January 1892. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  34. ^ "THE DEATH AT SANDRINGHAM". The New York Times. 15 January 1892. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  35. ^ "DEATH OF LAURA SCHIRMIR MAPLESON". The New York Times. 25 January 1894. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  36. ^ "INFLUENZA'S MANY VICTIMS". The New York Times. 12 December 1891. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  37. ^ a b "ALL THE FRENCH CABINET SICK". The New York Times. 22 December 1889. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  38. ^ "ENGLAND UNDER THE GRIP". The New York Times. 14 May 1891. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  39. ^ "EUROPE'S GRIP SUFFERERS". The New York Times. 11 January 1892. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  40. ^ "TITLED VICTIMS OF THE GRIP". The New York Times. 17 December 1891. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  41. ^ "MR. GLADSTONE IS ILL". The New York Times. 12 May 1891. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  42. ^ "BARON HIRSCH VERY ILL". The New York Times. 31 May 1892. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  43. ^ "THE POPE STRICKEN". The New York Times. 20 January 1892. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  44. ^ "BERLIN IN HOLIDAY SEASON". The New York Times. 27 December 1891. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  45. ^ "INFLUENZA'S MANY VICTIMS". The New York Times. 16 December 1891. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  46. ^ "ARCHDUCHESS MARIA ILL". The New York Times. 18 February 1892. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  47. ^ "TEMPORARY REGENT IN SWEDEN". The New York Times. 30 December 1891. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  48. ^ "NO RESPECTER OF RANK". The New York Times. 1 January 1890. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  49. ^ "THE GRIP'S VIRULENCE ABROAD". The New York Times. 12 January 1892. Retrieved 30 July 2022.

Further reading[edit]