I have been in inundated with message’s through my phone and emails that for instance Covid-19 truthers believe that 5G technology is dialing up the disease. That they are (the government killing off small businesses) trying to control us.
I became curious to find out if other conspiracy theories existed for previous pandemics and who were more gullible to them. I discovered that more than a century ago, telegraph poles and other mysterious causes were blamed for influenza. And each gave rise to dubious cures.
I also discovered that Alex Knapton had researched and written an extensive and factual article on the topic recently and I invite you to read it.
Alex Knapp Forbes Staff
Science I write about the future of science, technology, and culture. GETTY IMAGES
As the Covid-19 pandemic swept the globe in early 2020, a conspiracy theory about the disease went viral on social media: The genesis of the illness, proponents claim, was not the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Instead, this pandemic was actually caused by the introduction of 5G broadband, and radiation from cell towers equipped with the technology is the real culprit.
It doesn’t take Dr. Fauci to know that conspiracy theories have always been a predictable symptom of pandemics. More than a century ago, the truthers of the day tried to blame a deadly influenza outbreak on a similar technological innovation.
On January 31, 1890, the European edition of the New York Herald ran an item suggesting that the electric light was somehow responsible for a global influenza outbreak. After all, “the disease has raged chiefly in towns where the electric light is in common use,” the article noted, and went on to note that the disease “has everywhere attacked telegraph employees.
The illness in question was the first modern influenza pandemic, known as the Russian flu or “La Grippe.” The disease likely emerged somewhere in the Russian Empire in 1889 and quickly spread around the world in successive waves. It took only four months to hit every part of the globe, with the United States seeing its peak in January 1890. More than a million people (of the 1.5 billion on earth) were killed worldwide in that first wave.
The Russian flu was in part a consequence of a newly globalized world. Railroads and transoceanic steamships were perfect conduits for the disease, accelerating its growth across countries and continents. As with Covid-19, the earlier pandemic also caused a spread of misinformation, conspiracies and countless dubious therapies. Instead of the internet, these ideas were promulgated by newspaper and telegraph—but the impact was similar.
“People have an epistemic need to know the truth and they also have an existential need to feel safe,” says Dr. Karen Douglas, a researcher who studies the psychology of conspiracy theories. “In times of crisis, these needs are unmet so conspiracy theories can seem appealing.”
When reports of the Russian flu first emerged, medical science was in the middle of a major transition. The early 19th century was dominated by what’s known as “miasma theory”—the idea that diseases spread through the inhalation of “bad air” from rotting matter. By the mid-19th century, though, the germ theory of disease— what we now understand as the idea that illness is caused by microbes—became increasingly popular, though miasma proponents persisted even into the early 20th century.
Even with the advances in medicine by 1889, the causes of the Russian flu pandemic were still unknown. While scientists such as Edward Jenner and Louis Pasteur had already developed vaccines to protect against and prevent diseases, the discovery of the first virus was still three years away. And it wasn’t until the early 1900s that viruses capable of infecting humans would be discovered. That the Russian flu and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 were caused by influenza viruses wouldn’t be definitively determined until 1933.
This vital knowledge gap in 1889 meant that doctors and researchers were at a loss to explain the new illness spreading around the world. Contemporary newspaper accounts chronicled the many and varied theories that doctors at the time had about the outbreak. One account in The Boston Globe noted its similarities to dengue fever. An article in the New York Times NYT compared it to the disease that felled President William Henry Harrison in 1841. Such uncertainty about the nature of influenza helped fuel conspiracy theories and wild speculation about its causes.
The proto-trutherism from the Russian flu has close parallels in today’s pandemic. Although scientists know quite a bit about the novel coronavirus causing Covid-19, that hasn’t stopped speculation about its origins. One prominent conspiracy theory is that the virus was deliberately bioengineered in a lab to cause the pandemic. Depending on which theory you believe, the culprits behind Covid-19 range from the Chinese government to the U.S. government to Microsoft MSFT cofounder Bill Gates. The coronavirus behind this pandemic almost certainly naturally evolved—there is already considerable genetic evidence pointing to it—but that doesn’t halt the rampant speculation.
“This is a classic example of a phenomenon in conspiracy theory research that people perceive patterns that are impossible, or at best very unlikely,” says Dr. Douglas. “People essentially ‘join the dots’ when connections shouldn’t be made. When there is so much information going around, and pieces of information often contradict each other, people are more likely to see these illusory patterns.”
While there weren’t any whispers about genetic engineering in the 1890s (after all, DNA itself wouldn’t be discovered for nearly 70 years), that didn’t stop more fantastical theories about the origin of the Russian flu from infecting the public. In addition to the idea that telegraph poles or electricity might be responsible for the spread of the disease, Dr. William Gentry of Chicago caught the attention of newspapers by claiming he had isolated the microbes that caused the pandemic.
The source of these microbes, Dr. Gentry claimed, was stardust passing through the Earth’s atmosphere at regular 16- to 17-year intervals. Other physicians soberly rejected Dr. Gentry’s idea—preferring instead to consider the role of volcanic dust, bird migrations or other equally misguided causes.
This lack of understanding about the new deadly strain of flu left doctors perplexed as to the best way to treat it. An 1889 article in The Lancet conceded that “our want of complete knowledge of the nature of the disease renders it difficult to suggest measures of prophylaxis other than the uniform observance of general hygienic rules.” (That’s another sobering parallel to today’s pandemic—as of now, the only approved therapy for Covid-19 is remdesivir, which has been granted an emergency use authorization by the FDA thanks to clinical trial findings showing it can reduce hospital stays.)
In the absence of science-based treatments for the Russian flu, many dubious therapies flourished—taking advantage of people scared of a disease for which no known treatment existed. This, too, has parallels in today’s pandemic. The FDA has sent multiple warnings out to a variety of companies pushing specious cures, ranging from herbal teas to colloidal silver solutions to ingesting detergent.
Newspaper advertisements from the 19th century similarly tout a number of “cures” for the Russian flu. Castor oil was a treatment pushed by at least one newspaper, and other protocols included a bronchial inhaler and an electric battery (which promised to improve eyesight, to boot.) Even doctors promoted the idea that drinking brandy and eating oysters was the key to staving off infection.
The most famous remedy for the Russian Flu, however, 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 recoup its customers £100— or about $13,000 today. 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 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. The ruling was a vindication for Mrs. Carlill and the case itself is still cited as precedent throughout common law jurisdictions, including the United States, and is frequently taught in law school classes to this day.
In another parallel with the Covid-19 pandemic, there was also a class of drugs that existed on the border of sound science and wishful thinking. During the 1889 pandemic, quinine, an antimalarial drug that is the antecedent of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, was promoted by newspapers and doctors as a treatment for the Russian flu. Though many members of the medical establishment appear to have opposed the use of quinine as a treatment for the disease, these warnings went unheeded.
In December 1889, a Boston newspaper chronicled people taking quinine to combat the disease. That same month, an investigative article in the Kansas City Star bemoaned price gouging for quinine pills and noted that demand for them was keeping medicine out of the hands of people suffering from malaria. This has its own parallel today, where there have been multiple reports that excess demand of hydroxychloroquine may cause harm for those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, for which that medication is often prescribed as a treatment.
While studies are still being conducted about the efficacy of these Covid-19 treatments, there is little doubt that these drugs can be highly toxic and several clinical studies bear this out. In one tragic case of desperation, a man in Phoenix died (and his wife was hospitalized) after ingesting a chloroquine derivative intended for use as a fish tank cleaner to prevent the illness.
That tragedy also has an unfortunate parallel in the Russian flu. Newspapers in January 1891 reported at least two instances in which families suffering from the Russian flu mistakenly took the poison strychnine, thinking they were ingesting quinine. Several of them died as a consequence.
An unhealthy dose of misinformation, conspiracy theories and the embrace of dubious treatments is quite common during epidemics and pandemics, says Dr. Douglas, who adds that the psychology around them is intertwined. “Research suggests that people who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to turn to alternative remedies and distrust mainstream medicine.”
More alarming, the spread of misinformation and the lack of trust in scientific evidence has the potential to cause real harm. Turning to untested treatments can lead people away from getting the care they need, exposing them to greater risk. And while some alternatives, such as drinking herbal teas, are relatively harmless, others are not. Colloidal silver, for example, which the FDA has warned against, can cause permanent skin discoloration and make it difficult for your body to absorb medicines, including antibiotics.
Occasionally, the spread of conspiracy theories can cause actual harm as well. In the United Kingdom, where the idea that 5G causes Covid-19 has taken a firm hold in a significant segment of the population, there have been dozens of attacks on telecom towers. While no one has actually been killed yet, it’s not for lack of trying—the UK conspiracy theorists are hiding razor blades in anti-5G posters on telephone poles and threatening harm to people who work on those cell towers.
Even as companies are racing to develop a vaccine for Covid-19, conspiracy theorists may prevent people from taking them. Anti-vaxxer activists have pounced on Covid-19, protesting against vaccine development efforts and teaming with protesters fed up with stay-at-home orders. “Experimental research also shows that exposure to conspiracy theories increases vaccine hesitancy,” says Dr. Douglas. And polling bears that out: In a recent poll, 1 in 5 Americans said they would not take a vaccine for the coronavirus if it became available.
Perhaps the most insidious conspiracy theory about Covid-19 is one that seems more innocuous—the simple downplaying of the harms of the disease. You don’t have to go deep into Facebook or Twitter to find speculation that Covid-19 fears are overblown. Similarly, there are numerous opinion pieces and TV segments devoted to the idea that the economic damage from stay-at-home orders causes more harm than the disease itself.
“This is very common because it allows people to pretend that nothing is wrong and they can get on with their lives,” Dr. Douglas says. “This is an example of motivated reasoning. People believe what they want to believe.”
Once again, there is a historic precedent in the Russian flu pandemic. In an article about the illness in a December edition of The New York Times, it was reported that while the disease was spreading, it was mostly harmless. “There is nothing fatal about the universal cold,” wrote the author.
By time the epidemic subsided a few months later, the Russian flu had claimed the lives of more than 2,500 New Yorkers, making it the hardest hit city in the United States.