John Tregerthen Short was baptised in St Ives on 16 May 1785, the son of Elizabeth Tregerthen and Richard Short. He began his working life at sea and his capture and ordeal in the Napoleonic war is recorded in `Prisoners of war in France from 1804 to 1814, being the adventures of John Tregerthen Short and Thomas Williams of St. Ives, Cornwall`. Despite the title, this book also contains his diary from 1817 to 1872 when he was back in St Ives. It is here that he recorded on the 13th February 1837 that “The influenza has been raging to a very great extent ever since the commencement of the year, and scarce a family in the town has escaped the epidemic.” Three days earlier in reporting events in St Ives, The West Briton newspaper stated “The influenza has caused this little place to appear almost desolate; there is scarcely a house but a portion of its inmates are confined and the places of worship on Sunday presented empty pews.”
Bad housing, poor sanitation and overcrowding contributed to relatively fast spread of disease. Influenza was endemic in many areas and erupted into an epidemic when the right climatic conditions coincided with periods of economic distress.
Short’s diary entries for April 1837 noted “This spring has been the most severe and most backward known for a number of years. No grass; cattle dying for want of fodder….” and noted “all night a very heavy fall of snow” on the 10th and a sharp frost on the 17th April. As food prices rose the poorer people became underfed and less resistant to contagious diseases.
During an influenza epidemic the disease was most lethal for adults and especially the aged. Doctors and scientists had virtually no understanding of viruses generally and of influenza in particular, and it was almost 100 years later that the influenza virus was finally isolated and identified in 1933. At the time it was widely believed that influenza was an early stage of cholera since epidemics were often concurrent.