Remembering the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918

 In Opinion

With so much bad news in the world I have been hesitating to send this story to the Echo but with the infection rate down in Ontario at the moment perhaps this won’t seem such a downer. I wrote this story about 15 years ago after doing quite a lot of research. As I copy it over I find that I have to change a few things but it is basically the same.
When I was a young girl I often heard stories of the 1918 flu pandemic particularly because my mother, Alice Webster, was very ill with that flu. She was 15 at the time and had been a healthy, active girl and not one to catch disease easily. Her sister was also ill with the disease. My mother’s fever rose to extreme heights. She became delirious. The family was fortunate, with so many others ill, to obtain the services of Nurse Madill from Creemore who moved into the home and stayed with Alice and her sister until they were out of danger. Strangely, my grandparents and my two uncles did not become sick.
Because of my mother’s high fever her thick black hair fell out and she was bald, humiliating and embarrassing for a 15-year-old. After suitably recovering she was able to return to school. Her hair grew back but not enough to stop the taunts and teasing. Walking home from school she would take to the fields away from the others.
My father, Bill Emmett, often spoke of the ravages of the flu epidemic. He told of seeing people on a Friday and hearing of their funeral on a Monday. Neighbours would call around to nearby farms and find everyone sick in bed unable to look after each other or go to the barn to care for the animals. In such cases, neighbours stepped in and did what they could. Howard Macham from Sunnidale Township recalled that the men in the Rawn family had the flu. Howard’s father left food on the Rawn doorstep. The men recovered.
The 1918 flu was the worst pandemic ever to hit the world.
Recently I have been reading other research and have learned that humanity has frequently been hit with terrible pandemics. However it has been stated that although 11 million people were killed in World War I, between 20 and 40 million died because of the Spanish flu in the autumn of 1918. Young adults were most often those who died leaving many young children bereft of one or two parents.
No one is sure where and when the Spanish flu entered Canada but the troops who had been exposed to the flu in Europe and who returned to Canadian ports in the spring and early summer were almost certainly the source of the infection.
The disease seemed like the common cold when it started with a cough and stuffy nose. Soon every joint and muscle ached and the fever rose as high as 104 degrees. In a weakened condition many patients developed pneumonia and, with no modern day antibiotics available, the lungs filled with fluid. Without oxygen the skin turned a terrifying purple-black.
The flu was very contagious. In the effort to control the infection the medical officers of health ordered the closing of schools, theatres, churches and halls and any public gathering. Sometimes public funerals were banned.
In Creemore the people read a message in The Creemore Star. The message was entitled, From the Parsonage. The article stated that the church (not named) would be closed for part of November. This was significant as the “war to end all wars,” World War I, had just occurred. The pastor, George E. Coulter, wrote, “The closure of the church is to be deeply regretted, especially at such a time when all the world rejoices at the cessation of hostilities. May I be permitted to suggest that is the quietness of our homes, we offer praises unto God who has delivered us from the Menace of the Hun?”
Creemore was as susceptible to the Spanish influenza as any other community. By October 26, 1918, the Nottawasaga Board of Health ordered that all schools and churches be closed and that all entertainment be cancelled until the epidemic be over.
The tales of the ravages of the flu come to us mainly from the reports of death. The Creemore Star reported that “after an illness of three days with influenza Samuel Elmer Rusk of Rustkview died in Base Hospital in Toronto. He was 22 years of age and had recently joined the army.”
In a later issue we read, “After an illness of 10 days with flu-pneumonia, William Dowling died in emergency hospital in Collingwood on Saturday morning last. Deceased who was 32 years of age was a son of Patrick Dowling, 4111 Line, Nottawasaga.”
Even the doctors contracted the flu, not surprisingly because they worked endless hours ministering to the ill.
“Doctor Small, Stayner, aged 40, passed away Sunday evening. The doctor put up a brave fight, but was unable to throw off the disease. Cause of death was pneumonia following the flu. In his death Stayner is left without a doctor.”
The list of deaths went on. “Mrs. W.A. Johnston, Creemore, received a message from Rouleau, Saskatchewan, that her sister-in-law, Mrs. Ernie Hisey and babe had died after a short illness of pneumonia following the flu. Mr. Hisey died two weeks ago with the same disease.”
“Mrs. Alex Taylor, West Toronto, passed away, flu-pneumonia being the cause of death. Her husband, Alex Taylor, is a son of Mrs. Joseph Taylor, tenth line, Nottawasaga.”
We would have learned more of the deaths if the editions of the local paper were not missing. Another source of information is the official death registration kept by the province of Ontario. Strangely in the sea of deaths which we may read about, only one death in the Creemore area is listed. It was for Ida Beatrice Cooksey, 10 years and 7 months in December 1918. The cause was pneumonia following the flu.
A broader view of the flu comes from the Collingwood newspapers. In an October issue it was reported that all public places were to be closed. Theatres, clubs, lodges, skating rinks, pool rooms, etc. At that date there was no epidemic, only three cases, but it was concurred that prevention was better than a cure.
The community had arranged for an emergency health auxiliary. The town would be divided into five districts, each with a convenor. They would look after phone calls for help would deliver supplies, help in the homes and open the Technical School as a soup kitchen.
Some comments from the volunteers will help you understand the crisis. “A nurse said to one woman, ‘Couldn’t you tell me where I could get your clean linen and I will make up your bed for you?’ The woman was lying on a bare mattress. The sick woman said with a long sigh,’No washing was done for over a month since the baby was born.’”
From another, a cry for help. “I must get a man somewhere. It will take a man to hold down my delirious patient. If I leave him for a moment to get the hypodermic needle he is up and out of bed raving in his delirium.”
“’I haven’t been home for a week,’ said a trained nurse. ‘I have been steadily fighting, fighting. I-I.’ She stopped and flicked away a tear. ‘It’s my nerves, you know, and so little sleep,’ she said apologetically.”
‘”I can never forget the kindness here, said one patient at the Emergency Hospital. ‘I would scrub, wash, do anything for him.”’ (This apparently is about whomever looked after her.)
By Nov. 23 it appeared that the worst of the epidemic was over. Only one patient remained in the Emergency Hospital. Feversham School had reopened with reduced attendance. Social events in Collingwood were allowed to resume.
We have a written account of the Spanish influenza from one who survived the attack. Albert Hare was the writer. He lived south of Creemore in Mulmur Township.
He writes, “An occasion which is quite vivid in my memory happened during the winter months of 1918-19. A terrible epidemic of influenza swept across Ontario and struck down many people, young and old. My sister, Dorothy, was desperately ill and, in fact, did not open her eyes for three or four days as she lay in a little hammock. There were many anxious moments for Mother as she managed to escape the flu germ and like an angel of mercy was able to attend to all the family including my father.
We were all bed-ridden and mother brought us medicine and nourishment to our bedsides. It was difficult to find help.
“Our family physician, W.D. Smith, of Creemore was able to make a call at our house occasionally (about every third or fourth day). Since it was mid-winter he moved from family to family night and day using a horse and cutter. The automobile was useless then because roads during the winter were often impassible for wheeled vehicles. So most people used sleighs and horses. There were many hardships that winter but neighbours who had recovered from the dreaded disease helped each other with the chores on the farms, which included feeding the livestock and bringing provisions from the country store to the shut-ins. There was much sadness as young and old people became the victims of the disease. There was no vaccine available at that time.”

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