Coughs and Sneezes

Whoever thought it up deserves a medal. Few catchphrases last a century and still resonate with the public.

“Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases” originated in the 1918 influenza pandemic to support a US Public Health Service campaign.

It was tagged “Spanish” flu because wartime censorship meant news of first arrived from neutral Spain which reported King Alfonso’s illness and subsequent recovery. It was Britain which made full use of the slogan in successive publicity campaigns, harnessing talented artists like HM Bateman.

The arrival of movies with sound opened up a whole new era of short documentaries to support Ministry of Information’s propaganda in World War Two.

The most celebrated film (1m 27s) was released in cinemas in 1945:

It has humour – po-faced propaganda never engages with people. The blithering idiot sneezing everywhere is in fact a doctor. Richard Massingham worked as senior medical officer at the London Fever Hospital before switching to his real passions of film making and acting.

An earlier film (1943) on the same theme is more explicit on a wider purpose – to maintain war production:

Newsreels also took it up – like this in a more serious tone from British Pathé in 1947:

The advent of paper replacing cloth hankies was the only change in subsequent decades. It was used by the World Health Organisation in 2019 and its message in the coronavirus pandemic is as urgent as ever.



Categories: case studies, digital history, gems from the archive, history on the web, medical and nursing

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

3 replies

  1. Thanks Chris – always a pleasure to read your posts! Stay well!!

  2. You ought to be a part of a contest for one of the best blogs on the net. I am going to recommend this site!

  3. I could not resist commenting. Perfectly written!

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