Did Submarines Bring Pandemic To The Uk?



Our front page has often explored how the current pandemic has so many parallels with similar events, such as the Great Plague of 1665 and the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1919. The similarities in the impact they had and the responses to them are often striking and we have been able to learn much from past experiences.

President Trump was one it seems, who did not pay much attention to past events and has been widely criticised for his refusal to act decisively to deal with the coronavirus. The clues about the seriousness of the situation and the need for drastic action were there. One of the earliest victims of the Spanish flu in fact was his own grandfather, a businessman who died at the age of 49. The President of course didn’t feel it necessary to explore the lessons of the past, preferring to cite the amazing possibilities of the future, such as the fact that coronavirus could be killed by powerful light or even disinfectant!

One of the most striking similarities between historical pandemics and the current situation is the proliferation of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories often emerge in times of crisis and as a response to an invisible and powerful enemy hiding among us. Like pandemics, conspiracy theories are contagious and we have had a fair share of them recently. Covid-19 is said by some to be caused by 5G technology and the vaccines we are so desperate for are apparently designed to implant microchips into people!

It is strangely reassuring that there is nothing new about any of this. In the 17th century, plague was often associated with witchcraft. During the 1630 plague in Milan, the combination of folk superstitions and widespread anxiety led to the trial, torture and execution of two citizens falsely accused of spreading the pestilence. The most famous remedy for the Russian Flu in the1890s was the carbolic smoke ball. These were manufactured in London and widely advertised. The balls released a “smoke” of finely ground phenol powder (an ingredient commonly used in soaps at the time) that would be inhaled through the nostrils.

The company that manufactured this treatment promised that it would prevent customers from catching the Russian flu. And if the product failed, the company promised to refund its customers. In December 1891, Mrs. Elizabeth Carlill purchased one of those products and used it on multiple occasions. Then she succumbed to the epidemic. Because the carbolic smoke balls failed to work, Carlill and her husband filed a claim with the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company, but it was ignored. In 1892, the couple took their case to court. In the case of Carlill v. Carbolic Smoke Ball Company, the court found that Mrs. Carlill was entitled to the money and that the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company was in breach of contract for failing to pay her upon submitting the claim.

By the time of the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1919 conspiracy theories had become more sophisticated. Having recently been at war with Germany, the Germans were prime targets for the conspiracy theorists. The most colourful perhaps was the belief in the UK, United States and much of South America, that German submarines were responsible for the virus, with one New York Times article quoting a US army official who suggested that the influenza had been planted on the country’s East coast by “enemy agents”. The German pharmaceutical company Bayer, found itself in the firing line amid suspicions that the flu was spread in aspirin. The front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer went further, citing the expert opinion of Lt. Col. Philip S. Doane, head of the health sanitarian section of the Emergency Fleet Corporation. The Germans, it reported, had stolen into Boston harbour in U-boats, come ashore secretly and let loose vials filled with the deadly germs in theatres and other crowded places