In 1781-82, an influenza pandemic swept through Europe. A scientific lecturer and magician, Gustavus Katterfelto, had recently arrived to London, and he was giving lectures in the fashionable theater district. He expertly lectured on all manner of scientific and philosophic matters, but he also claimed to have a demonic black cat and he habitually ended his lectures with a performance of magic tricks.
In April of 1782, panic about the pandemic had reached London. Katterfelto – who also called himself “Dr.” or “Colonel” depending on his audience – began to advertize the showing of “live insects,” and that these bugs caused the influenza illness. These “Live Insects” were simple microorganisms found in Thames water, cheese, beer, flour, and other organic materials. He used a “solar microscope” to project enlargements of these microorganisms onto the wall of his darkened theater rooms. Katterfelto did not project the influenza “germs,” however; while “germ theory” was not necessarily a new concept at the time, claiming that one could see the thing that caused an illness was entirely shocking to some.
It appears these advertisements were a success, and Katterfelto moved into larger, swankier rooms on Piccadilly. He advertised that 700 people came to his shows in a week to see the influenza insects, and physicians attested that they were the very ones that caused the illness. Dabbling with germ theory must have made matters complicated for Katterfelto. A couple of weeks after his move, he suddenly advertised that he had lost his “crop of insects” during recent rains, and a couple of days after that, he advertised that he had fallen ill with the influenza, himself. However! Katterfelto also attested to the efficaciousness of “Dr. Batto’s Medicines,” which he sold for five shillings a bottle, which about as much as a London worker made in a week at the time.
Although Katterfelto was a performer who blurred the lines of fact and fiction, he sacrificed any remaining scientific integrity he might have had with the public when made his scandalous claims about his insects while selling his expensive nostrums. Certainly, there don’t seem to be any outright accusations of “biological terrorism” that we can find in the historical record, but Katterfelto was labeled a “quack” and he did not last much longer as a performer in London. By 1784 he attempted to sell his equipment and began travelling as an itinerate performer throughout England. He became destitute and was once arrested for vagrancy. He died in the small town of Bedale in 1799.
Morning Post and Daily Advertiser (London, England), Tuesday, April 9, 1782.
Morning Post and Daily Advertiser (London, England), Monday, May 6, 1782.
Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser (London, England), Monday, May 27, 1782.
Parker's General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer (London, England), Thursday, May 30, 1782.
David Paton-Williams, Katterfelto: Prince of Puff (Matador, 2008).