The Spanish Influenza Epidemic*

*this story was originally published in Canadian Disasters 2006 and Canadian Disasters - 43 True Stories 2013 by Scholastic Canada. Copyright René Schmidt 2006, 2013      

The general store at Paradise Hill, Saskatchewan sat empty except for the dead bodies of the store-keeper and his wife. Inside a nearby tent there were three more victims. The eerie silence was only broken by the sounds of a young boy digging graves for his dead mother, father, brother and sister.  Battleford Press, 28 November 1918  

World War 1 caused the violent deaths of millions of soldiers in Europe. It was a terrible tragedy that will never be forgotten. But World War 1 was followed by a worse killer, a terrible illness which killed about 60 million people around the world.  It was the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918. Strangely, it is almost forgotten, and for years was not even mentioned in most history books. Yet one in every six Canadians caught the Spanish Flu in 1918 and more than 50 000 Canadians died from it. How could this have happened?

Scientists believe the Spanish Flu of 1918 was a deadly animal flu virus which crossed from pigs to birds and then over to humans. Soldiers in World War 1 were the first to get sick with it.  Soldiers lived in close quarters in barracks and trenches and travelled huddled together in trains and ships.  Any soldier coughing would quickly infect others around him.  Sick soldiers were hospitalized, where in the crowded hospital the virus easily spread to many others. Many sick soldiers were sent home on leave, bringing the germs with them to various cities and towns.  Returning from the war, soldiers who had not yet caught the virus were exposed to it on crowded troop ships. From major ports like Halifax and Quebec City the virus spread with the soldiers along railway lines and shipping routes to almost every town in Canada. 

It was called ‘Spanish’ Flu or the “Spanish Lady” and “dancing with the Spanish Lady” was how people described the victims trembling and coughing its effects. But the flu had little to do with Spain. It was named Spanish Flu because the Spanish newspapers were the first to report the sickness truthfully. Other countries that were fighting in WW1, hid the facts of the epidemic so the enemy would not know the damage it caused.  After the war German General von Ludendorff admitted that a major battle was lost because so many of his soldiers were sick with the flu. In October of 1918 there were 180 000 cases of flu in the German army.

The Spanish Flu, for some unknown reason, caused most people to get very sick, but usually only killed young and healthy people. Victims would feel flu symptoms, such as fever, chills, headaches, sore throat, muscle pain, and cough. They would be too weak to move for three days or more. Some had nosebleeds. In serious cases people coughed blood, got cyanosis, (which means your skin turns blue from lack of oxygen), and pneumonia, which in those days was often fatal.

Soldiers like 22 year old Joseph Alexander joined the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in St. John’s and died of the flu in less than a week. His military service lasted just six days.  Others like Ethel Dickenson returned home after serving heroically as a nurse in the First World War. Ethel volunteered to nurse sick sailors returning home.  She died of the Flu within weeks.  Eighteen-year-old Alan McLeod of Stonewall Manitoba had earned the Victoria Cross for bravery as a pilot in WW1. He had been attacked by eight enemy aircraft and was seriously wounded. His plane on fire, he shot down three aircraft and chased the others away.  Because of the fire, he had to climb out on a wing to land it safely to the ground.  Soon after his return to Canada as a war hero he caught the Spanish Flu and died.   

The Flu epidemic slowed down the whole country. Hospitals and clinics were overwhelmed and did not have enough medicine to treat all the sick.  As each town and city was infected hundreds of people would be bedridden for at least three days, unable to do anything to help themselves.  Businesses had to shut down. Offices were closed and newspapers were not delivered because so many employees were sick at once.   There was a shortage of doctors and nurses.  Many were serving in the army overseas.  Those who stayed in Canada worked day and night with very little rest. Old retired doctors and nurses were called back to help.

Doctors in those days knew that “germs” spread from person to person but they could not yet detect viruses with microscopes.  When the Spanish Flu hit they had no remedies for it.  All they could do was try to keep it from spreading.  Knowing the flu could spread from person to person, The Public Officer of Health in many towns recommended people avoid crowded areas and wear masks in public. In some places they banned public meetings and closed schools, dance halls, and theatres.

People everywhere dreamed up all sorts of home remedies to avoid getting the Spanish Flu. Some recommended wearing a lump of camphor around your neck, or poultices of various mixtures taped to your chest.  Others recommended drinking various types of liquor, smoking cigars or a pipe, burning sulphur, gargling with potassium permanganate, or sucking on various types of medicine candies.  None of these cures worked.  

Some of the victims of the epidemic died within hours of catching it. Two girls sharing a room in the YWCA went out together in the evening. By the morning Clare Hunter thought her room-mate had slept in. But when she checked, her room-mate was dead and cold. She had died at about 2:00 that morning.  Whole towns like Cartwright in Labrador were discovered to be silent and almost deserted, with only four lucky souls unaffected by the flu.  Most of the sick lay on the floors of their homes, unable to tend the wood stove or even feed themselves. The nearest doctor was 250 Km away.  At Mountaineer Cove, Newfoundland, a tiny community of four families, all adults were found dead in their beds or laying on floors. In one of the houses, five small children were managing to cope by themselves, with four dead adults still lying where they died.

In Belmont, Ontario, all that is left of the life of Hetrick Ewin are the initials H.E. carved in the pew in the Presbyterian church. Hetrick, a lively eighteen year old boy, died in the epidemic. Elsewhere in Belmont, Norman Taylor lay upstairs in his bed, blue and feverish with the flu.  The doctor visited and informed the family the boy would be dead by morning. His brother Bert found some whiskey and fed him a few drops every hour through the night. Norman survived and lived to be an old man. Pearl Dobson, only a child of 10 at the time, remembers lying in bed for three days, unable to move, as the flu made her completely weak. 

Only when electron microscopes were invented in 1933 were researchers finally able to identify viruses because they are so very tiny. Thirty million could fit on the head of a pin.  Early methods of combating the flu virus were found to be incorrect. Flu viruses are so small they can easily pass through gauze masks.  They also mutate, or change, frequently. If they pass from an animal to a human, which only happens in rare cases, the mutation can be very deadly to humans. 

The Spanish Flu eventually disappeared but was it something we can forget about?  Top medical researchers do not think so. They are worried that an epidemic like the Spanish Flu could happen again. They have spent much time studying it. Researchers even went so far as to dig up frozen graves of Flu victims in the far north to try to find a perfect sample of the deadly virus. American scientists found a perfectly preserved Spanish Flu virus on the body of an Inuit woman who died in Alaska in 1918. 

When the Spanish Flu virus first hit Canada, there was no way for medical people to share information from one town to another or from one Province to another.  After the epidemic happened, the Federal government created the Department of Health. This department of the government now makes sure all Provinces receive the same information and help if such events happen again.  If such an epidemic hits again, and it could, we will be better prepared.