George Canning Is My Son

By Julian Crowe

A new biography of the remarkable Mary Ann Hunn.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

The influenza pandemic of 1788

Mary Ann was in Lancaster in the summer of 1788 when the epidemic caught up with her. The night before she fell ill she had been playing Lady Randolph in John Home's tragedy Randolph.

The influenza of 1788 was sometimes known as the Russian disease from the early accounts of the devastation it caused in the Ukrainian city of Kherson.  As it moved westwards newspapers told of distinguished sufferers, including the Austrian Emperor and the King of Poland, both of whom survived, unlike many of the poorer victims.  The infection reached London in June 1788 and Edinburgh by August. 

Mary Ann describes the disease as raging all around her and sweeping many to the grave.  Some accounts suggested that the symptoms were not usually severe, and seldom fatal if properly treated, but Mary Ann says she was 'in the high road (apparently) to the grave'. She may have been weakened following her recent confinement, her tenth. Her symptoms were a sore throat and 'scarlet fever', and the treatment 'an enormous blister and the nauseous regimen of Bark and Port'. Mary Ann survived both the disease and the cure.

Advertisers of patent medicines such as James's Powders recalled how efficatious their products had been in the earlier influenza outbreak of 1782.  In the autumn, after the epidemic had passed, the Whitehall Evening Post helpfully advised its readers to 'carry some Camphor in their pockets, and frequently smell to it.'

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