In the fall of 1918, many small towns in Canada felt eerily desolate.
In Erickson, Man., the railway station master was nowhere to be seen. The hotel and stores were closed. Bags of unsorted mail piled up in the shuttered post office.
In larger cities, people were dying in such large numbers that they couldn’t be interred as usual. Montreal ran out of coffins and used delivery wagons as makeshift hearses. In Toronto, bodies piled up in cemetery vaults, awaiting burial.
On the East Coast, the Cape Breton village of Marble Mountain also looked deserted. “The village store is left wide open, and those who are physically able serve themselves as no clerks are now available.”
Those details appeared a century ago in The Globe, the newspaper that would become The Globe and Mail. The full force of the Spanish influenza had reached North America just in the last months of the First World War, in a pandemic that eventually killed 50,000 Canadians and 50 million people around the world.
The reports in The Globe from 1918 contain eerie similarities with today’s pandemic.
Authorities banned public gatherings and shut down businesses. Some people complained about having to wear masks. The Stanley Cup finals were disrupted. The U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson, and Canadian prime minister Robert Borden both caught the flu.
There were differences, too. There was little co-ordination from Ottawa or provincial governments, leaving local officials to fend for themselves. Little attention was paid to the economic toll or how governments could help. Unlike COVID-19, the Spanish flu hit children and young adults the hardest.
We read more than two years of coverage in The Globe to see how it covered that crisis. Here’s what the Spanish flu looked like to readers of the time.
HOW IT ARRIVED
Researchers now believe that the pandemic started in the spring of 1918, in a “herald wave” that wasn’t very lethal. In Canada, it went largely unnoticed.
In April, Dr. Charles Hastings, then Toronto’s medical officer of health, was asked about the city’s numerous cases of pneumonia and influenza. “Dr. Hastings laid the blame partly on the season and partly on the prevalence of dust,” The Globe reported. “The mucous membranes are sensitive this time of the year.”
The first public notice of a large-scale problem emerged from Spain, giving the illness its name, though it didn’t originate there. “A strange illness that resembles the flu” emptied Madrid’s theatres and sickened many Spaniards, The Globe published in May. By the summer, military camps in the United States suffered outbreaks affecting thousands.
Then the second wave struck, arriving in Canada in mid-September, when 150 became sick and three died at an army camp for Polish American volunteers near Niagara-on-the-Lake. Major Thomas Morrison, a camp official, predicted the outbreak would end soon “with the advent of a few fine days.”
Unreported in The Globe was the flu’s first outbreak among civilians, in the Quebec town of Victoriaville, after the Sept. 15 end of a Roman Catholic eucharistic congress that drew 40,000 faithful. The final day of the event included a mass at a local boarding school, the Sacré-Coeur college. Right afterward, teaching brothers and students at the college started to get sick and die.
SHUTDOWNS AND LOCKDOWNS
Troubling news came from Sydney, N.S., where a ship landed on Sept. 21 with 500 ailing American soldiers. Within days, eight died. A curling rink and church halls became hospitals. Theatres, dance halls and schools closed.
Near Montreal, soldiers became sick at a depot in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. The conscription crisis might have contributed to the contagion when military police detained suspected draft dodgers who later fell ill. On Oct. 7, Montreal ordered schools, theatres and dance halls to close.
Ontario still hadn’t fully grasped the threat. On Page 8, The Globe buried a story with the headline “Spanish Flu Invades City,” where Dr. Hastings assured that the “outbreak is little different to that of other fall seasons, except, if anything, it is a little milder.” The Globe reported that authorities felt “no alarm.”
Then infections skyrocketed. The death toll, reported in daily summaries, climbed steadily. Factories reported severe shortages of workers. Funeral directors could not keep up with the dead. Hospitals overflowed as doctors and nurses fell ill.
Toronto eventually followed other cities in shutting down public activities. Dr. Hastings advised people to shop by telephone and walk to work. Hotels were turned into makeshift hospitals. Court witnesses no longer had to kiss the Bible when taking an oath.
Conventions and other gatherings were banned, followed by the closure of theatres, libraries and pool halls. Churches cancelled Sunday services or held shorter ones. “Toronto woke yesterday morning to a silent Sabbath, very few church bells called people to worship and a hush seemed to fall upon the whole city,” The Globe reported.
The flu then reached the western provinces. Alberta made face coverings compulsory while outdoors. “Everyone in Edmonton had to wear a mask; you could not ride on a streetcar without it,” one resident told The Globe.
Lethbridge was quarantined. Trains were locked down when they neared the city. In other Prairie towns along the rail lines, “guards are placed at the depots, and intending visitors are informed that they can enter the town only if prepared to remain until the epidemic has abated.”
Almost as soon as officials ordered widespread closings, their thoughts turned to when they could lift those restrictions, expecting the outbreaks would be over in just days or weeks.
By early November, cities across Ontario and Quebec lifted their orders. Dr. Hastings announced that “the bottom has dropped out of the influenza epidemic.”
This created a pattern, alternating between outbreaks and periods of calm, shutdowns and reopenings, as cases repeatedly flared again into 1920.
Some members of the public pushed back against the medical restrictions.
The priest at a church in Quebec defied orders to close and officials promised legal consequence. In Alberta, there were grumbles in local newspapers about the provincial order to cover faces when outdoors.
Globe readers found the restrictions confusing and contradictory. One letter to the editor asked why theatres and churches had to close, while streetcars remained crowded. “Did the Medical Health Officer ever ride downtown at 8 o’clock in the morning on a Dundas car? If not, he better put on a ‘flu’ mask and take the trip for once. … The danger to health from riding to and from work under such conditions is infinitely greater than sitting quietly in a well-ventilated church.”
Like contemporary public-health officers who have become household names, the Spanish flu gave prominence to the early pioneers of preventive medicine such as Dr. Hastings.
He is recognized today as a key figure who improved the city’s sanitation in the early 20th century, reducing infant mortality and eradicating typhoid and tuberculosis.
Near retirement as a hospital physician, he turned to public health, spurred by the memory of a daughter who died of typhoid fever after she drank tainted raw milk. He started campaigning for pasteurization and better inspections of milk.
He became Toronto’s medical health officer in 1910, saying on his appointment that “I am anxious to make Toronto the banner city of the Dominion in the matter of health.”
He held the post for two decades. He advocated medical inspections at school to contain diphtheria and scarlet fever. Seeing that city officials revamped plumbing systems but still let sewage disposal taint the water supply, he complained in a speech that “they strain at a gnat and swallow a camel”
Like some other prominent Canadians at the time, he believed in eugenics. He warned that “the subnormal are producing two or three times as rapidly as the mentally normal,” and wanted to prevent “the spread and multiplication of worthless members of society.”
He retired in 1931, hailed as a man who had made Toronto more salubrious. But despite his skills, his handling of the Spanish flu was limited by the knowledge of the time.
CURES AND VACCINES
Although Dr. Hastings warned people against squandering money on remedies of dubious value against the flu, stores ran out of menthol, camphor and lozenges. Makers of syrups, laxative, quinine tablets or meat extracts also claimed their products helped ward the flu.
During the war, the sale of spirits was restricted in much of Canada. One exception was liquor prescribed for medical reasons. By 1919, Ontario doctors had penned more than half a million prescriptions for whiskey. Police had to keep order as people lined up outside dispensaries selling liquor.
Meanwhile, Canadian researchers were part of the worldwide effort to isolate the flu strain and immunize the population.
A Queen’s University bacteriologist, Guilford Reed, tested a vaccine on 200 volunteers. The Connaught Laboratories, then part of the University of Toronto, produced another vaccine and shipped out thousands of doses to hospitals and the military.
The Globe described those scientists as “working for humanity.”
“In the solitude of their laboratories, they labour with germs and poisons,” The Globe reported. “They do this for no personal reward. Their discoveries never yield them great riches. … But they carry on that life may be safer and better for those about them, and for those who come after them.”
Those vaccines had a key shortcoming: Scientists at the time didn’t know that a virus, rather than larger bacteria, caused influenza. Nevertheless, modern researchers say those vaccines helped by reducing lethal bacterial complications in flu patients.
SISTERS OF SERVICE
As flu cases spiked up, it became clear the health care system would not be able to cope. Many nurses and doctors were overseas for the war. Others became sick, leaving hospitals short staffed. Many victims died at home without ever receiving medical care.
The Ontario government responded by mobilizing volunteer nurses as part of a new organization: Sisters of Service, or S.O.S. An Oct. 15 story announced a “new army to fight the flu,” with 60 women signing up during the first meeting at the legislature. As many as 2,000 volunteer nurses eventually joined the fight.
Margaret Patterson, a Toronto doctor who recently returned from fighting the bubonic plague in India, led the training effort. She held daily lectures and pamphlets with her lessons were distributed across the province.
Three of her lectures were printed in The Globe, addressed “to young lady volunteers.” They detailed instructions on monitoring and treating the symptoms, using household materials. “We are called upon to meet an emergency, a very old disease that is comparatively new to the present generation,” one of the lectures said.
Sisters of Service was part of a network of women’s organizations that rallied to respond to the Spanish flu, providing nursing services, making supplies such as pneumonia jackets to keep patients’ lungs warm and cooking for the sick. Those groups also included the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, who still operate today as IODE Canada.
Chief Joseph Davis was among thousands of First Nations soldiers who enlisted to serve in the war.
A trapper from the tiny Brunswick House First Nation near Chapleau, Ont., he sailed out for Europe, leaving behind his wife, Angeline, and three young daughters.
He came home in January, 1919, to find out that the flu had killed two of his children.
His wife had to travel more than 50 kilometres by canoe through ice-covered waters to reach Chapleau. One child was already dead. The other was gravely ill and died in hospital.
An earlier Globe article in November described another Indigenous woman who also came to Chapleau with two flu-stricken children. The woman, who was sick herself, had to portage her canoe for 10 kilometres with children in tow. She said she had left behind another woman and her two ailing children. They were later found dead.
The news from Brunswick House and other First Nations showed the reach of the flu in Indigenous communities, with fatality rates in some areas that were 10 times higher than nearby cities and towns.
One article reported that 86 out of 100 Inuit died at the Hebron mission in northern Labrador. Weakened survivors gathered together and left the dead in the other huts. They later discovered that the sled dogs had eaten the bodies. They had to kill the dogs and buried the remains of the dead in a hole cut in the frozen sea.
The flu also hit Indigenous communities in the west very hard, particularly in Manitoba. On the Cross Lake First Nation, nearly everyone was infected and 130 died out of a population of 500. The flu killed 120 of the Norway House Cree Nation – one in six residents. “It was something terrible, whole families wiped right out,” a Globe story read.
WHAT WE MISSED
While The Globe already billed itself “Canada’s national Newspaper,” its coverage of the Spanish flu often focused on Toronto and Ontario. There were updates about Quebec, but, beyond that, only occasional dispatches from the East Coast and Western Canada.
Even in Toronto, the coverage was often sporadic and tucked deep into the paper, drowned out by news from the war in Europe, which neared its end just when infections in Canada reached their peak.
THE LAST WAVE
A lasting legacy of the pandemic was the creation of the federal Health Department. The idea of a national health ministry had been around for years, though largely discussed as a way to prevent venereal diseases. The ravages of the Spanish flu propelled the idea forward.
“The epidemic which is now ravaging Canada has brought the question up again in urgent form before the government,” The Globe reported.
Another wave of the flu in the spring of 1919 forced the finals of the Stanley Cup to be called off after five games between the Seattle Metropolitans and the Montreal Canadiens. Five players for the Habs became sick and one, Joe Hall, later died. Team manager George Kennedy also caught the flu and never fully recovered, dying two years later.
In many countries, the Spanish flu faded away by 1919. However, in Canada, there was a final wave in early 1920.
It struck Lieutenant-Colonel Dick Worrall, a picaresque figure who rose from private to commanding a battalion during the war. Born in England, he lied about his age to enlist at 16 in a British infantry regiment in 1906. He later enrolled in the U.S. Army, where he was garrisoned on an island when war started in 1914. He deserted, swam ashore then jumped onto a freight train to Quebec to join the Royal Montreal Regiment.
After the Armistice, he settled in Montreal and married Lorraine Welch, a war widow whose first husband, Captain Charles Crowdy, died from German shelling.
In February, 1920, Welch became ill with the flu. Her husband also contracted the disease while looking after her.
Worrall, who had survived the German gas attacks at Ypres and led night patrols in no man’s land, died shortly after midnight following nine days at Royal Victoria Hospital.
As one Globe article noted during the pandemic, “Never since the black death has such a plague swept the world.”
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