The Russian Flu Pandemic 1889-93

As Peter previously mentioned in Friday’s blog post, we discovered the gravestones of 3 young girls, Mary, Minnie, and Clara, last week. Initially, we thought they were orphans from the Protestant Orphan’s Home due to the small size and lackluster appearance of the markers, but soon discovered that they were in fact, sisters. Their cemetery plot had been purchased by their father, James Perkins. Given this information, and the short period of time in which they died (January-March 1891), we concluded they must have died from some kind of contagious disease.

MacKenzie suspected that they could have died from the Russian Flu, as the time of their deaths occurs shortly after the disease reached the big cities in Canada, including London. This lead me to research more on the Russian flu epidemic, particularly its presence and impact in Canada.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of information about the Russian flu (even though it caused around one million deaths worldwide – in relation to today’s population, it would be around 420 million people suddenly dying), let alone the Russian flu in Canada. It reached major Canadian cities in early 1890, including Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal, and even London. The image below is a map compiled by a team of international scholars in the early 1890s, showing the spread of the flu across the globe.

scanned-map
This image from <https://circulatingnow.nlm.nih.gov/2014/08/11/mapping-the-1889-1890-russian-flu/> tracks the arrival and movement of the flu across the globe.

The Russian flu was not as detrimental as the later, and more famous, Spanish flu, but it is hypothesized that the Russian flu made the Spanish one following the First World War, much more dangerous. Based on the theory of ‘first antigenic sin’, it seems that the arrival of the Russian flu made survivors develop antibodies that would prove useless against the more evolved Spanish flu that occurred later.

It is difficult to track the progress of the Russian flu, as it is not as heavily studied as other influenza epidemics in North America. The articles that exist are heavily based on medical and statistical analyses (luckily I love statistics, so it has been enjoyable for me!), and can be difficult for historians to interpret.

It would be difficult to track the direct deaths from the epidemic as many, such as the Perkins sisters, could have perished due to complications. Based on their death records, two of the sisters died from respiratory infections that were likely caused by the flu. Furthermore, it is likely that Canadian newspapers were not eager to publish reports and outbreaks of the flu in their cities as it would discourage immigration, which was needed to help grow the nation’s population and economy.

This research on the Russian flu proved to be very interesting. I learned about something I had never heard of before, and had the pleasure of looking at plenty of statistical charts and maps!

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2 thoughts on “The Russian Flu Pandemic 1889-93

  1. Hi—just wondering what section the girls are buried in and are they with their parents? Also, how old were they? So very interesting!

    Angie C.

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    1. Hello Angie, thank you for your interest!
      The Perkins sisters are in section QG by the back fence of the cemetery. The girls are not buried with their parents. They were predeceased by their mother (who is in another area of the cemetery), and we are still trying to confirm that their father is also somewhere in the cemetery.

      Mary A. Perkins (d. Jan 29, 1891 – aged 4yrs, 7mos)
      Clara L. Perkins (d. Feb 11, 1891 – aged 8yrs, 7dys)
      Minnie P. Perkins (d. Mar 4, 1891 – aged 13yrs)

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