Joking in the Time of Pandemic: The 1889–92 Flu and 2020 COVID-19

tags: Victorian era, coronavirus, Russian flu

Kristin Brig is a doctoral student in the history of medicine department at Johns Hopkins University. Her research interests include public health in the nineteenth-century British Empire, especially concerning connections between imperial Africa, Great Britain, and other British colonies.


In December 1889, a new influenza epidemic moved from Russia into Europe.2 By February 1890, the Russian flu, named after its origin, had become a pandemic, triggering global panic as thousands succumbed to the disease. It reemerged in Europe in summer 1891 and again in winter 1891-92. Although many historians, journalists, and medical workers have considered COVID-19’s resonances with the 1918 flu pandemic, I find the 1889-92 flu another useful, though often forgotten comparison for popular culture. In both COVID-19 and Russian flu, the public used satire to relieve fears over highly-communicative pandemic diseases.3 The media’s wide public reach was particularly useful in making jokes available and relatable to local, national, and sometimes international audiences.

Even after Robert Koch discovered the microscopic bacillus in the 1880s, the British public continued associating disease with the unknown. Perhaps that’s not surprising. Today, people still often talk about medicine and science through symbols, symptoms, and other rhetorical devices instead of picturing the physical germ. The public’s humor reflected the ambiguity around both diseases. How do we know this disease exists? And if it does, what do we do about it?


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