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10 What can we learn from the nervous sequelae of past pandemics?
  1. Mark Honigsbaum


Dr Mark Honigsbaum, medical historian and senior lecturer, City University of London. A regular contributor to The Observer & The Lancet, the author of five books including The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria, and Hubris (New York and London: Norton; Hurst, 2019), The Fever Trail: In Search of the Cure for Malaria (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2002), and Living With Enza: The Forgotten Story of Britain and the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918 (Macmillan, 2009), which was longlisted for the Royal Society science book of the year in 2009. A specialist in the history of pandemics and infectious disease, his academic work combines insights from the medical and environmental humanities and the philosophy and sociology of science. His current research focuses on the phenomenon of ‘vaccine hesitancy’. Through case studies of recent vaccine controversies he seeks to understand the role that the media and partial or incomplete scientific knowledge of vaccines plays in suspicion of this valuable medical technology. He is also developing a project interrogating the phenomenon of pandemic remembrance and the tension between narrative framings of Covid-19 as a ‘crisis’ and collective experiences of grief and loss enabled by connective digital technologies.

Abstract Pandemics of respiratory disease have long been associated with peculiar fatigue states and an array of neurological conditions. However, in the absence of compelling biological evidence, in practice it has proved difficult to differentiate these post-viral syndromes from wider epidemiological signals and medical syndromes.

Focussing on the ‘Russian influenza’ pandemic of the 1890s, this talk examines the way in which Victorian nerve doctors sought to make sense of the peculiar nervous sequelae that trailed the pandemic. These sequels included nerve exhaustion, psychosis, insomnia and fatigue and, as with Long Covid, provoked disquisitions and disputes in The Lancet and other medical journals.

Unlike Long Covid, however, men were more likely to fall prey to these syndromes than women. The result was that rather than stigmatizing male sufferers as malingerers, Victorian neurologists provided a functional diagnosis, the ‘psychoses of influenza’. Drawing on notions of ‘overwork’ and ‘overworry’ and theories of entropy, the psychoses closely resembled neurasthenia and, I argue, provided a similarly acceptable label for a spectrum of somatic and psychosomatic disorders.

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