The mass illness that causes cold-like symptoms, usually accompanied by pneumonia or inflammation of respiratory tract, is as old as mankind on earth. In February and March 1743, when “almost the whole of Paris fell ill”, King Louis XV called this disease “the flu.” After a long time, the disease was more commonly referred to as influenza, or both. The word “influenza” in the Italian language means influence. In Italy, in the 15th century, the causes of this disease were attributed to the adverse effects of stellar status.
Influenza is defined in medical terminology as an acute infectious disease characterized by fever, inflammation of the upper respiratory tract, and general intoxication of the body. The first pandemic, when the symptoms of the disease are fully consistent with influenza, was in 1580. It started in Asia, then spread across Russia, Europe and northern Africa. There were about 8,000 victims in Rome alone, after which it spread to North and South America.
In medical history, it is estimated that by the 20th century, Europe had suffered from around 90 influenza epidemics. Seventeen raged in Russia, eleven of them in St. Petersburg. Certainly, the plague also affected the Baltics.
In the 19th century, the last major influenza epidemic in Europe was in the late 1889 and early 1890. It was marked by great mortality and remained in the memory of the people as something terrifying. The epidemic affected St.Petersburg, other large cities and villages almost all over Russia. Also the Baltics and Riga did not escape it. The spread was facilitated by regular rail traffic with St.Petersburg, inland Russia, Warsaw, as well as intensive shipping.
The flu caused suspension of operations in factories, learning activities in schools and universities, soldiers’ daily camps and barracks. Owners closed their shops because there was no one to sell the goods. The usual medication did not help, doctors recommended quinine. Time passed, the generation changed and the epidemic was forgotten. But the flu virus did not go away. It was waiting for the suitable moment to reap. The plague began in the time of general devastation – war, revolutions and general confusion.
The first news about the disease in Riga arrived in the beginning of the summer in 1918. The assessment of the disease did not raise any particular concern: “The news report from Berlin on 1 June: today a detailed report on the disease in Spain was sent by telegraph to the Spanish Ambassador. The disease has been proven to be Influenza with a sudden severe fever lasting 3-4 days, then a rapid and complete recovery began. The disease is completely harmless. No deaths have been reported so far. ” From Spain, the disease quickly spread to France and the West Front. In early July, newspapers reported that the disease had spread from Nuremberg to Germany.
When did the epidemic come to Riga and the Baltics? Where are the first hotbeds of the disease? It is almost certain that it was brought in by a German Army soldier or some of the Russian prisoners of war, who were gradually released by Germany after the Treaty of Brest with Soviet Russia was signed. Often they first of all arrived in the port of Riga or Liepāja before continuing their way to Russia. The virus could be brought also by Latvian refugees who returned from Soviet Russia.
In the middle of summer, the flu started unstoppable pace in this country as well. In July, Latvian newspapers published recommendations on how to protect themselves from disease: “Spanish runny nose fever (grippe, influenza). The disease is mainly spread by mucus of the patient’s nose and mouth, which diffuse when they cough or sneeze through the air. Protective and preventive measures on this basis are self-evident: hands must be thoroughly cleaned and kept clean before eating, do not touch your mouth with your fingers, as well as do not take pencils or anything else in your mouth. Always stay away from sick people when they are sneezing or coughing so that bacterial mist does not enter the respiratory organs. Once the disease has emerged, you should remain in bed for a few days; it is the only way to get through the disease more easily. ”
In mid-August, the newspaper “Baltijas Ziņas” confirmed that the disease was spreading. “Spanish disease” began to appear quite often in the suburbs and around the city, for example, in Salaspils. In the Moscow district (of the Riga City), in some places, all family members fell ill at once. Latvian and other newspapers regularly published weekly statistics on patients in Riga, but as of August 15, the flu or influenza has not been mentioned.
For the first time in the statistics of contagious diseases, influenza is recorded for the week from 28 September to 5 October: “The number of ill persons: with abdominal typhus – 9, dysentery – 6, diphteria – 3, scarlet fever – 9, measles – 34 and influenza – 87.” In Riga at the beginning of autumn, the disease massively threatened all groups of society. The illness of singers and musicians forced the organizers to cancel sold-out concerts or look for a replacement. By mid-October, according to the “Baltic News,” the disease had already affected hundreds of people in a week: “403 patients were registered from October 13-20. Influenza is not only rapidly growing, but is particularly hard. The sick, who are not quite careful and leave the bed too early often get dangerous pneumonia and often die in such cases… Mortality with this sudden sickness is increasing and people should threrfore be very careful. The sick should be careful to leave the bed and they must seek doctor’s assistance without delay.” The number of the sick almost doubled in November. At that time, terrifying epidemic statistics were recorded about England: “The number of deaths in 96 of England’s largest cities in a week from November 3-9 was 7560 against 7412 a week before. In London and the surrounding area alone 3968 people have died.”
The disease did not spare the people of the countryside. In October, November it became more widespread. The news from Vidzeme, for example says: “The new Spanish disease – influenza has been raging in the Lielstraupe parish for more than a month. Although such a long time has passed, the disease is not diminishing, but it is spreading more and more. Almost everyone has been ill with this disease, except for a few older people. In some farmsteads, all the inhabitants fell ill at once, therefore people from neighboring farmsteads had to come to care for their animals. Many people have also died from this disease and death mostly chooses the young and strong people, who are also most affected by the disease. Some days in the cemetery of the Straupe parish, 7 corpses were buried. Due to the same illness, the schooling in the church and parish schools was greatly delayed. Moreover not only in the Liel-Straupe parish this disease is raging, but also in Sigulda, Turaida, Lēdurga and Maz-Straupe parishes, as well as in Limbaži and Cēsis. B. F.”
In 1918, 99 deaths have been registered in the Church Book of the Lēdurga-Turaida parish. In 21 cases, as the cause of death was reported flu or influenza. The first flu victim was registered on 13 October: Ella Pētersone, farmer’s daughter of the “Sūrumi” farmstead in Igate, 43 years old, unmarried. Death continued to spread: on October 18, Dorothy Matilda Franz, farmer’s wife of the “Kroņi” farmstead in Nabe, 53 years old, married.
The memories of two inhabitants of Turaida suffering from the flu have been recorded. In August 1918, the former estate’s master builder Jānis Lapiņš returned from Soviet Russia. After 14 days of quarantine in the German-occupied Pskov, he was allowed to leave for Sigulda with a residence in Lēdurga. “When we got on the train, I immediately got sick with flu. The carriage was shaking so much that I thought from this hard disease I will never recover and reach home alive. We wanted water, but we did not get it at any station, because the trip was at night. We drove in a coachman’s carriage from Sigulda to the farmstead “Kalna-Melderi,” where my cousins put me in a soft bed and carefully looked after, so that after 4 days I could go to Lēdurga to stay with my father and mother… It was already mid-August, I slowly recovered and went to the German command post in the civil parish house for check-in and take out my passport (ausweis)… It was enough to catch a cold and my disease rapidly returned, I slept unconscious for a couple of weeks until recovered.
The second story is about illness around the same time in the farmstead “Kalna Bisenieki” – written according to the vision of Otomārs Bērziņš. His father, blacksmith Jānis Bērziņš stayed with the tenant Shoenberg. My father put in working order smithy of the farmstead “Kalna-Bisenieki” and we started to work. There were also orders, but they were to be postpaid in autumn… Then the flu epidemic started. The doctor was out of the question. Many died. We had a real infirmary in “Kalna-Bisenieki”. About 10 people fell ill, only Shoenberg and Bērziņš were fit as a fiddle. Both had heard that the flu is afraid only from cognac. It could be exchanged from German soldiers for bacon. After all, Schoenberg got the cognac and both of them “were treating themselves”.
Expectations that the disease would soon end did not come true. In 1919, 82 people were on the list of the dead in the Lēdurga-Turaida parish.
In order to find out the more or less true extent of the 1918-1919 “Spanish flu” pandemic in Latvia, as the main source of information was used the Parish Metric Books. The statistics are partially cpmpiled in the Latvian Statistical Yearbook issued in 1921. In the table “Reasons of Death in Riga 1911–1920,” among 26 different causes, 426 people died from influenza in 1918, 262 in 1919, and 1,256 and 1,170 from respiratory diseases, respectively.
Later, the “Spanish flu” turned out not to be an epidemic, but a pandemic that killed 50 million or more people worldwide. The human flu virus was discovered and isolated by English scientists W.Smith, C.Andrewes and P.Laidlow in London in 1933.
Dr. hist. Uģis Niedre