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Researching Epidemics in Chronicling America Newspapers

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This guest post is by Tom Ewing, professor of history at Virginia Tech. He discusses his research on epidemics as covered in late 19th and early 20th century newspapers that are digitized in the Chronicling America online collection. Serial and Government Publications Division digital conversion specialist Robin Butterhof coordinated this post.

Tom Ewing, History Professor, Virginia Tech

Describe your research and the kinds of primary sources you use.

My research examines the history of epidemics, with particular emphasis on the Russian influenza (1889-1890) and the Spanish influenza (1918). For both of these projects, I work with historical newspapers, especially the American daily and weekly newspapers available in Chronicling America,* as well as international newspapers from other databases. I also work with medical journals available from the National Library of Medicine, HathiTrust, and the Medical Heritage Library, and statistical collections, including US Census documents and annual reports from states and cities.

In the case of the Russian influenza, newspapers began reporting on widespread cases of “la grippe” in St. Petersburg in November 1889, and then tracked similar outbreaks across Europe, the United States, and the rest of the world in early 1890. In the summer of 1918, unusually high numbers of sickness in Spain were reported by newspapers in Europe and the United States, which led to the name “Spanish influenza.” In studying these two epidemics, I use primary sources to illustrate how each epidemic developed over time and how physicians, health officials, and the public responded to the spread of disease. My research on epidemics has been published in medical journals, computer science journals, blogs, and newspapers. My research has also informed my teaching at Virginia Tech and resulted in a seminar on influenza for K-12 teachers funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

What is the most interesting item you found in Chronicling America related to this research?

I’m interested in the relationship between expert knowledge and public understanding of epidemics at different stages, from the first reports through the peak numbers of cases and deaths, to the gradual recovery from the heaviest tolls. Beginning the second week in October 1918, just as the influenza epidemic was peaking in most communities, newspapers all over the United States published an explanation of this new disease, mostly under the headline: “Uncle Sam’s Advice on Flu.”

“Uncle Sam’s Advice on Flu,” along with a cartoon promoting the WWI 4th Liberty Loan drive, The Watertown News (Watertown, WI), October 14, 1918, p. 4

Charlevoix County Herald (East Jordan, MI), October 11, 1918
The Morgan City Daily Review (Morgan City, LA), October 14, 1918
The Press (Stafford Springs, CT), October 17, 1918
Pullman Herald (Pullman, WA), October 18, 1918
Jackson County Journal (Sylva, NC), October 18, 1918
The Winslow Mail (Winslow, AZ), October 25, 1918
The Meeker Herald (Meeker, CO), October 26, 1918
The Hartford Republican (Hartford, KY), November 8, 1918

The article was presented in a question and answer format, starting with, “What is Spanish influenza? Is it something new? Does it come from Spain?” The answers mostly provided information that we would consider medically accurate even a century later, with all the advances that have been made in medical science. Namely, influenza is a contagious kind of cold, with fever, pains, and aches, usually lasting a few days, in most cases resulting in gradual recovery, but with the potential for dangerous complications that could result in death. The article rejected the claim that the disease originated in Spain, indicating instead that influenza often appears in waves, and that evidence of widespread disease outbreaks came from Europe already in late 1917.

How can ‘Spanish influenza’ be recognized?
The article provided detailed guidance about symptoms, community spread, and tips for diagnosing influenza, including measuring white blood cells in blood samples. The more ominous questions about the course of the disease and whether people die were followed by accurate, but certainly understated, claims that while most patients recover after a few days, “in some places the outbreak has been severe and deaths have been numerous,” usually as a result of complications.

What causes the disease and how is it spread?
This question provides a good indication of the state of medical knowledge in 1918, as the spread is attributed to a germ, whereas scientists in the 1930s would discover that influenza was spread by a virus. The remainder of this section, however, provides a fairly accurate description of how influenza spreads from person to person by coughing, sneezing, spitting, and other ways to spread droplets of mucus. The treatment of influenza, as recommended in this guide, includes measures we continue to use today: stay home from work or school when sick, get plenty of rest, monitor fever, practice effective sanitary measures in the home, and wear a mask when attending sick patients.

How can one guard against influenza?
This final section offered practical advice that we now call “social distancing”: avoid congested public spaces, cover coughs and sneezes, spend time outside, follow advice from physicians and health officers, provide access to fresh air, and maintain a good diet.

The article ended with this rhyming couplet: “Cover up each cough and sneeze / If you don’t you’ll spread disease.” Most newspapers also published an illustration with the article, showing a man sneezing or coughing, standing in front of a small crowd of civilians, to the left, and a soldier and sailor, to the right.

“Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases–As Dangerous as Poison Gas Shells,” The Prescott Daily News (Prescott, AR), October 14, 1918, p. 1

This article has captured my attention because it demonstrates that the United States government made an effort to distribute timely, thorough, and accurate information about influenza as it swept the nation in October 1918. The widespread publication of this article and the substance of the advice addresses questions asked by those looking at history, especially teachers, by demonstrating that most Americans had access to reliable information from the government about the disease. The illustration is especially compelling because it connects the epidemic to World War I by equating the danger of spreading disease to poison gas. This single article, published across the nation, provides a useful way to introduce key concepts about the 1918 influenza epidemic to students, teachers, and the public.

What would you like to tell everyone about working with primary sources like Chronicling America?

Newspapers were the primary means of communication in the late 19th and early 20th centuries so they are an excellent source of information about daily activities, national processes, and international events. As students, teachers, and researchers begin to use these sources, they need to recognize the different sections: front pages, editorials, advertisements, obituaries for information on individual deaths, and special sections for sports, entertainment, and economic reporting.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most American newspapers had wire service reports from across the country so the same text would appear in many newspapers, sometimes with varying headlines. By contrast, local stories were reported by journalists on the ground in most cases. Newspapers also disseminated official statements, ranging from Presidential speeches to state government documents to local reports from the mayor or city council.

Searching for the Right Word
Newspapers do present challenges for interpretation. The full-text search in Chronicling America allows researchers to identify specific text on the pages of newspapers. In preparing to search, it is important to think about the language that was used in the historical context to identify the subject matter. During the Russian flu, for example, the word “grippe” appeared on more pages than the word “influenza” during the peak month of the epidemic, January 1890 (3,688 pages with “grippe” and 2,604 pages with “influenza”). Three decades later, during the Spanish flu, the ratio had changed significantly, as the term “influenza” appeared much more frequently (1,916 pages with grippe compared to 14,324 pages with influenza in October 1918). More newspapers are available for 1918 than 1890, which accounts for the higher number of total search results for 1918.

Thinking Critically about the Data
Researchers also have to be aware of the geographical distribution of results. In 1918, Boston was one of the cities most affected by the influenza in the early stages, but the absence of newspapers from Massachusetts and other New England states currently in Chronicling America skews the outcome of searches. By contrast, New York, Washington, Seattle, Kansas City, and other major cities have newspapers in Chronicling America. In selecting newspapers for research, it is important to consider the way that news was presented, the availability of titles by region and year, and the questions that can (and can’t) be addressed with these source materials.

What’s one thing you’ve learned from your research that applies to our current pandemic?

The timeline of the Russian flu has shaped my understanding of both the COVID-19 epidemic and how Americans have been exposed to news about the disease. Both diseases were first reported in a seemingly remote location. Then there was the rapid spread of an epidemic across the world, the local examples of cases, and the sudden increase in deaths. As the disease progressed, initial reports were skeptical about the seriousness of the disease, which then turned into public reporting of more intense and informed interest among physicians and health officials, as well as guarded predictions of likely impacts.

New York newspapers from 1889-1890 in Chronicling America provide striking parallels to reporting in early 2020 on COVID-19. On December 1, 1889, The Sun reported that “an epidemic of influenza of distressing intensity” was raging in the Russian capital, St. Petersburg, with 40% of the population ill and even members of the royal family falling ill. Just over two weeks later, The Evening World, New-York Tribune, and The Sun each reported on the first cases in the United States. Yet public health officials reassured the public that while the disease was “decidedly unpleasant,” it was “not dangerous.”

By the end of December, however, The Sun reported as many as 50,000 people ill with influenza in New York City. A week later, The Sun reported that public health officials recorded 1,202 deaths. As the number of deaths increased, media attention increased dramatically in quantity and intensity with this front page headline from The Evening World on January 9, 1890: “La Grippe’s Death-Blows. List of Victims of the Epidemic Increasing Every Day. The Highest Mortality Record Ever Seen in This City.” A similar New York Times headline from April 8, 2020 reads, “Speed of Coronavirus Deaths Shock Doctors as New York Toll Hits New High.” Reading the headlines today reminds me that history provides lessons for anticipating, understanding, and surviving serious outbreaks of epidemic disease.

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* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Comments (3)

  1. So did it originate in Spain or not?

  2. No, epidemic influenza in 1918 did not originate in Spain. Uncle Sam’s Advice on Flu addressing this question: “Does it come from Spain? Although the present epidemic is called ‘Spanish influenza,’ there is no reason to believe it originated in Spain.”

    The disease is referred to as “Spanish influenza” in American newspapers as early as July 1918, as in this report from The Sun, July 1, 1918, about the Spanish influenza in England. Two days later, the Evening Public Ledger reported that 100,000 Germans had Spanish Influenza. On August 17, New York Health Commissioner warned the public about “Spanish Grip” that might be on ships in the city harbor, as reported in the New York Tribune.

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