- 09 Jul 20
The death of the famous Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell has been attributed to pneumonia. But that is only ever likely to be a partial explanation. Because the underlying question remains: what might have made him susceptible to that insidious condition – and unable to fight it – at the age of just 45.
Parnell. How many Irish people can be identified solely from their surname? A few of our literary giants. A small number of our politicians. A smattering of sporting icons. But to have achieved that distinction is a rare honour.
It may not, however, be the only one for which the man often described as Ireland’s great lost leader will in the future be known. For intimations of a curious connection to the present have become increasingly hard to ignore. Think about it.
It caused respiratory illness, spread with great speed, affected men more than women and triggered damage to the central nervous system. But this was in 1890-1892, so it’s not the Covid-19.
It’s usually known as the Russian Flu pandemic. It’s far less well known than the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920 but – like the latter – it was a deadly outbreak, killing over a million people worldwide. We know it laid low Britain’s royal heir Prince Albert Victor. But did it also take out the Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell?
Charles Stewart Parnell was a political superstar, one of the giants of modern Irish history. In his day he was known as the uncrowned king of Ireland and was so universally famous that his Glasnevin grave is marked by a giant piece of Wicklow granite inscribed with just one word: Parnell. To this day, it needs no other. But he was brought down politically after his long, adulterous love affair with Kitty O’Shea was made public.
He embarked on a protracted, arduous battle to re-establish his position, during which his health failed. He was already unwell from a kidney ailment and further exhausted himself campaigning across Ireland and Britain. He made his final public appearance at Creggs, Co. Galway on 27 September 1891, speaking to his supporters in a torrential downpour. The soaking apparently greatly exacerbated his poor health. He returned to his home in Hove, near Brighton, on the south coast of England and died on 6 October 1891, in the presence of Kitty O’Shea, whom he had wed only four months previously. He was just 45 years old.
Pneumonia is normally cited as the cause of Parnell’s death. It’s not so much a disease as an inflammatory condition of the lung in humans, primarily affecting the small air sacs known as alveoli. Typical symptoms include some combination of cough (productive or dry), chest pain, fever and difficulty in breathing. The condition is usually caused by viral or bacterial infection and occasionally by other microorganisms.
So, the attribution of Parnell’s death to pneumonia is likely to be correct, at least in a general sense. But was it as simple as exhaustion and a severe drenching compounding an underlying kidney condition? Might not the pandemic that raged through Britain and Ireland at precisely the same time as he was most furiously campaigning have played a part?
A LIKELY CULPRIT?
Influenza deaths in Ireland had been negligible in the years leading up to 1890, according to the Irish social historian Caitriona Foley in her 2005 paper “This Revived Old Plague: Coping with Flu”. In 1884–89, for instance, it caused an average of only one death per 100,000. However, when the pandemic arrived in 1890, this rose to 36 deaths per 100,000, rising again in 1892, with 81 deaths per 100,000 being attributed to flu.
The pandemic spread with great speed. One author described it as having ‘flowed over the whole globe in the space of a few months’. Its arrival in London was first reported in the press in mid-December 1889. Apparently, it showed an early preference for lawyers and the court magistracy. Perhaps the legendary carousing among those in the legal profession played a part: Irish pub-goers please note!
The numbers infected in the UK and Ireland rose dramatically in January 1890, and mortality increased very substantially in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dublin. Like Covid-19, it was highly infectious: estimates suggest that half of France and almost half of Germany contracted the illness. It was especially hard on the elderly.
Foley notes that:
“A Ministry of Health report judged that the outbreak ushered in a ‘new phase in the evolution of the disease’, and January 1890, according to a Dublin doctor, was ‘one of the sickliest ever experienced within living memory’. When flu resurfaced in January 1892, the Irish death rate climbed to 19.4 per 1,000, the highest since registration had begun in 1864. At the time, the Chairman of the Wexford Board of Guardians lamented that ‘the mortality in the country is something dreadful’, while the clerk noted that ‘all the doctors were complaining, and the relieving officers had never before so many cases to attend to’.”
Although the first wave came and went quickly, it was followed by others in 1891 and 1892. The second was the deadliest. In Britain the Registrar General calculated that 58,000 people died from the illness that year. All this being so, it is plausible, to say the least, that Parnell might have been infected while on the hustings.
Let us now turn to the infection itself.
The Russian Flu pandemic has been described as “the first case of influenza in the ‘era of bacteriology’ initiated by the discoveries of Pasteur and Koch” (Kempińska-Mirosławska and WoŸniak-Kosek, 2013). However, the science was only in its infancy. Although Louis Pasteur and Edward Jenner had developed the first vaccines to protect against viral infections, viruses as such were as yet unknown. The first human virus to be identified was yellow fever virus in 1901. Indeed, it wasn’t actually isolated until 1932, by Max Theiler.
So, at the time, nobody knew what caused the 1890 pandemic. Was it an infection or a condition? Some thought it was caused by micro-organisms transmitted from person to person. Others, as Caitriona Foley writes, regarded the flu as “of the miasmatic group”, that is, of the air, airborne and preceded by high temperature and moist atmosphere. She quotes Dr Whitaker, the Medical Superintendent Officer of Health in Belfast, reporting in 1892 on a fog, a “foul and choking vapour” which he thought “conducive to the propagation of the influenza microbe.”
Over time, the consensus grew that the pandemic was caused by influenza. This was based on contemporary clinical descriptions – patients suffered fever, chills, sweating, malaise and intense respiratory symptoms, progressing in some cases to pneumonia – as well as the pattern of its diffusion and recurrence. Some later researchers even identified a likely culprit: the H3N8 virus.
There the issue largely rested until 2005 when a group of Belgian researchers led by biologist Leen Vijgen, published their genetic sequencing of the human coronavirus OC43 in the Journal of Virology.
Several hundred viruses cause the common cold in humans. The majority are rhinoviruses and they give you a runny nose. But 15-20% are caused by four to six coronaviruses of which OC43 is one. Vijgen’s team argue that it’s very similar to the bovine coronavirus BCoV and if you track their genetic evolution backwards, you find a virus that jumped from cows to humans around 1890. This would strongly suggest that it wasn’t flu that caused the pandemic of 1890-1892, it was a coronavirus.
This thesis is consistent with the symptomatic evidence: central nervous system damage is very rare in influenza but was a feature of the 1890 pandemic; and likewise the vulnerability of males. But both are characteristic of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic.
As an aside, a lack of consensus on treatment in 1890-2 reflected a lack of consensus on cause. According to the Polish researchers Bogumiła Kempińska-Mirosławska and Agnieszka WoŸniak-Kosek, the pandemic of 1890-2 was one of the first to be widely commented on in the daily press, which was growing extensively in the second half of the nineteenth century.
As is the case in 2020 with social media, much commentary was uninformed by even the most basic scientific knowledge. Quackery was widespread and newspapers and magazines carried advice columns and myriad adverts for patent medicines, pills and potions. Alcohol was often recommended and Caitriona Foley notes that, in Ireland, 1892 “saw a hefty increase in wine sales with consumer demand guaranteeing sales of an extra 15,600 gallons of brandy.”
The virus was indiscriminate, infecting one and all – though, as might be expected, the poor and elderly were ultimately the hardest hit. The tsar of Russia was one of the first to fall ill. He recovered and relapsed a year later. In Britain the newspapers published the news that the German ambassador Count Hatzfeld had developed influenza as did “Lord Salisbury”, the Prime Minister of the day. The latter’s condition improved after two days.
However, the best-known fatality in Britain was Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale and grandson of Queen Victoria. He contracted the virus on a New Year’s shooting trip to Scotland and died on January 14, 1892. He was second-in-line to the British crown and after his death the line of succession changed to George, grandfather of the present Queen Elizabeth.
Which returns us to Ireland, Charles Stewart Parnell and the part played by the coronavirus in his death. The evidence is, of course, circumstantial. Yet it’s also persuasive. The virus was rampant in these islands and there is no way it wasn’t present at meetings addressed by Parnell and other places he visited. And we know it was highly contagious and virulent.
He was a man on a mission, traversing Britain and Ireland in his efforts to recover his position and exhausting himself in the process, and with an underlying kidney condition to boot. The virus was powerful enough to take him down and he would have exhibited all the symptoms of pneumonia. The case is strong.
The huge impact of Covid-19 around the world has generated a wider fascination with previous pandemics. It’s not just that there might be practical lessons to be learned. It’s also because our capacity to analyse both the present and the past has greatly advanced and we may now be able to reach into past pandemics to find new answers to old questions.
Including the true cause of Parnell’s death!
Caitriona Foley “This Revived Old Plague: Coping with Flu” in Cox C and Luddy M Cultures of Care in Irish Medical History, 1750-1970 Pages 141-167, 2005, Palgrave Macmillan UK.
Mark Hongisbaum, “The Great Dread: Cultural and Psychological Impacts and Responses to the ‘Russian’ Influenza in the United Kingdom, 1889–1893” in Social History of Medicine, Volume 23, Issue 2, August 2010, Pages 299–319, https://doi.org/10.1093/shm/hkq011. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Social History of Medicine.
Kyle Harper (2020) Pandemics: Now and Then: As human populations expand and their exploitation of the globe increases, so does their vulnerability to certain diseases, History Today Volume 70 Issue 7 July 2020
Bogumiła Kempińska-Mirosławska and Agnieszka WoŸniak-Kosek, “The influenza epidemic of 1889–90 in selected European cities – a picture based on the reports of two Poznań daily newspapers from the second half of the nineteenth century”, Med Sci Monit. 2013; 19: 1131–1141, Published online 2013 Dec 10. doi: 10.12659/MSM.889469; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3867475/
Len Vijgen et al (2005) (“Complete Genomic Sequence of Human Coronavirus OC43: Molecular Clock Analysis Suggests a Relatively Recent Zoonotic Coronavirus Transmission Event”