I had written thus far when a Variety of Interruptions prevented my proceeding for several Days, and then I became violently attacked with the Influenza, from which I am now just beginning to recover. It has been very severe on all my Family, none except my Nephew, having escaped. Mrs. Jay has been obliged to struggle with that and the intermitting Fever together, and this is the first Day that she has been out of the House since our Arrival. I am much mortified at not having yet seen the Countess de Montmorin. The Day before I was taken sick, I did myself the Honor of calling at her House, but she was from Home. As soon as the Doctor sets me at Liberty, the first use I shall make of it will be to renew my visit–
Mentions of illness are fairly common in Jay’s correspondence. Fevers, pains, rheumatism, and upset stomachs abound. However, the above passage caught my eye. Jay mentions influenza specifically– not just a generic “fever” or “ague.” The whole family was sick. And, the Jays received treatment from a doctor. Could this be an instance of an influenza pandemic? The pandemic of 1918-19 is perhaps the best known such outbreak, but (of course) there were many others– and the one of 1781-82 was a doozy.
In his Pandemic Influenza, 1700-1900, K. David Patterson characterizes the 1781-82 occurrence as ranking “with those of 1889-90 and 1918-19 as among the most widespread and dramatic outbreaks of disease in history.” Affecting tens of millions of people, it appeared first in India in November 1781, spreading to St. Petersburg in January 1782, the Baltic coast in March, northern Germany and Scandinavia in April, Austria, Bohemia, and London in May, and France in June, when the Jay’s contracted it. The outbreak finally petered out in September 1782. Morbidity was high; it is estimated that 70 to 80 percent of England’s population fell ill. All segments of society were affected equally. Mortality was lower than in the 1918-19 pandemic, but high enough to elicit notice among physicians. And unlike in 1918-19, when young adults were the most common victims, the elderly seem have died in the highest numbers.
Unfortunately, we do not know who treated the Jays or what treatment they received. Jay, on the whole, seems to have rejected more heroic or aggressive forms of treatment (such as bleeding and purging), tending to believe that rest, good food, fresh air, and time would heal the best.
For further reading:
K. David Patterson, Pandemic Influenza, 1700-1900: a Study in Historical Epidemiology (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1986).