07 February 2020, The Tablet

From the archives: Coronavirus - have we been here before?

'Spanish flu' is estimated to have killed between three and five percent of the world population

From the archives: Coronavirus - have we been here before?

Staff members of China Railway Nanning Group Company walk out of bullet trains after disinfection work in Nanning, south China
Lu Boan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

The recent advent of the coronavirus has cast some anxious minds back to the last large-scale epidemic this country experienced: Spanish flu. A pandemic lasting from 1918 to 1920, Spanish flu spread across nearly the entire world, exacting a death toll worse than the world war that immediately preceded it. The virus is estimated to have killed between 50 and 100 million people, making it one of the deadliest epidemics ever. How did The Tablet report on it at the time?

The most obvious and consistent mark of the passing of the “Spanish lady” can be seen in our obituary columns, where there is a steady stream of deaths due to “influenza” over 1918,1919, and 1920. The following notice gives an idea of the tone:


“THE REV. LOUIS J. N. HEMY. We regret to record the death of the Rev. Louis Joseph Napier i Hemy, which took place at St. Edward’s Presbytery, Golders Green, on Sunday morning, from pneumonia following on influenza. Father Hemy was the eldest surviving son of the late Mr Charles Napier Hemy, and was in the thirty-fourth year of his age and the eighth of his priesthood. Educated at St. Edmund’s College, Old Hall, he had spent the whole of his priestly life as assistant priest to Father Bendon at St. Edward’s, Golders Green. He died fortified with the last rites of Holy Church. The funeral took place on Thursday, the Cardinal Archbishop being present at the Mass of Requiem. R .I .P .”


Another way in which the Spanish flu affected The Tablet’s content was in the language used by certain advertisers to promote their products. These range from Evan’s Pastilles, claimed to keep you safe from the flu (“If you have EVAN’S PASTILLES with you - you’re safe”), Fort-Reviver fruit juice (“recommended by all leading Doctors & Practitioners as preventive of influenza”) and Sanatogen tonic: “One of the most distinguished of living scientists – formerly assistant Professor of Physiology at Oxford University – was advised by his physician to take Sanatogen after an attack of Influenza.”

 These advertisements first appear early in the outbreak - a good example is this classified advert, printed in our 9 November 1918 edition:


“Medical Men and Influenza. —The recent Influenza, states the Medical Officer of Health in one of our chief cities, usually starts in the ‘Nasal Cavity’ which is a splendid incubating box for such diseases. He urged that a useful measure of personal protection is to thoroughly douche the nose and gargle the throat night and morning with some approved disinfectant solution. ‘Sotol’ Antiseptic Mouth and Throat Wash (in tablet form) admirably fulfils all requirements for the Mouth, Throat and Nose, and is obtainable from all chemists and stores, 40 for 1/6 ; 100 for 2/9, or post free from Western Dental Mfg. Co., Ltd. 74, Wigmore Street, London, W1. Samples for 3d stamps.


Interestingly, beyond the advertisements and in the death notices, commentary on the impact of the epidemic is notably rare. Where it is present, the tone is matter-of-fact – perhaps surprisingly so given 228,000 British citizens died of the flu. It is not until Saturday 21 February 1920 that we have a longer comment on the influence of influenza:


Without going so far as to speak of an epidemic there have been a large number of cases of influenza lately in Rome, and, as usual, the after-effects have been sometimes serious. Inevitably ecclesiastical institutions have been affected, and quite lately, unhappily, with fatal results in one or two cases. The American College is in mourning for the death of a student, and Mgr. Mackintosh, Rector of the Scots College, has had the shock of seeing another of his students pass away, at the same time being seriously anxious for the health of his Vice-Rector, Father Clapperton, who, however, has now well passed the danger point. It is terribly sad, but it is inevitable that such sickness must attack communities — the English College had twenty invalids at one time, the Irish Franciscans a big proportion, and I regret to hear that Dr. Hagan, Rector of the Irish College, whose health has given cause for anxiety before now, is again suffering.” 


Why the subdued response to reporting on the epidemic - not just in The Tablet, but across British media? One obvious reason is the censorship applied to the British press during the outbreak to prevent panic over the scale of the illness. Another factor could be that the relative frequency of disease in the years prior to the world war made an epidemic, even a deadly one, less newsworthy. 

Another is simply that the experience of the world war had normalised death on such a scale that the less spectacular symptoms of Spanish flu failed to impinge on the public consciousness. The way in which the older and more esteemed members of society tended to avoid or survive the flu is another likely factor. Then as now, deaths of the prominent or celebrated are more newsworthy than those of the ordinary and lesser known.

It is unlikely that The Tablet or any other news medium today would have such a muted response to a contemporary epidemic – as the response to the coronavirus clearly shows.

And Happy Birthday to Clifford Longley, our Editorial Consultant and a very long-standing contributor to The Tablet, who turned 80 last month. He’s been presented with a facsimile of The Tablet’s cover in the week of his birth to mark the occasion. 


The complete Tablet archive is now accessible to all our subscribers, with around 9,000 issues available to view. This extensive archive goes back 180 years and is fully searchable as well as easy to navigate.

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