[Home page] [Who is Past Forward ] [Contact Us] [Publications]

Past Forward is now on Facebook "LIKE" us to keep in touch


April 18, 2003

The SARS Scare and the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918

Things have radically changed since 1918 when an incredible case of denial and ignorance was suffered in the worst pandemic in modern times. Newspapers, for example, reported very little on a disease that killed 22 million people worldwide by 1922. Half a million people died in the United States and twenty to thirty thousand died in Canada.

I recently reviewed a major 1918 newspaper on microfilm, and could hardly find a thing on the Spanish Influenza on the front page. Occasionally on page two there were passing references (see clippings). Most of these reports were included among silly articles on unimportant items.

Newspaper articles during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

Today (April 11), unlike in 1918, SARS (with just over a hundred deaths worldwide to date) has pushed war off of the front pages on occasion. It is also remarkable how little has been written on the 1818 epidemic, as compared to the hundreds of books, television documentaries, etc., on WWI which killed significantly fewer people, relatively speaking.

We have learned from the past, and now have research laboratories that can analyze viruses so they can be identified, and a cure or control introduced. There have been some powerful responses since 1918 to possible epidemics. U.S. President Gerald Ford introduced a vaccination program for swine flu in the 1970s, when forty million people were vaccinated; unfortunately, as it turned out, it was unnecessary and there were serious side effects for some people. Over a million chickens were slaughtered in Hong Kong. With the current reaction to SARS, we can see what a relatively small number of cases can do to our already strained health care system, and the impact on the economy.

The handling of the SARS scare has been a credit to the health care system, which has hopefully gained control of its spread and used the crisis as a dress rehearsal for the "big one" that experts predict. The problem viruses, which are so small that millions can fit on the head of a pin, mutate and reproduce to survive at an alarming and unpredictable rate. There is still a mystery surrounding the source, cause and demise of the Spanish Flu, and some of the crises since then. For further information on the Spanish Flu the best Canadian reference is a book by Aileen Pettigrew, The Silent Enemy: Canada and the Deadly Flu of 1918 (1983). The best new book is Gina Kolata's book Flu: The Story of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused it (1999).

A Local Look at the Spanish Flu of 1918 

Reading of local history provides stories of the impact of the flu in 1918. One passing reference was to a mother and child that died and were buried together. Another, in a Chisholm history book, refers to a home less than a kilometer from where I live where a mother and three children died within a three-week period.

The book, Disaster Canada (Lynx Images 2000) describes how a mail boat delivered mail and supplies to small ports in Labrador. People soon got sick and many died. In many cases, survivors were unable to cut firewood or hunt, and died from the cold or starvation. Some hunters disappeared in the bush and were never heard of again. In the village of Okak, only fifty-seven of 266 survived. The mother and father of one eight-year-old girl died and the hungry dogs ate their bodies, but she survived in minus 30-degree temperatures for five weeks. In November 1918 a plea for help went out to the Hudson's Bay Company went out, but they curtly replied that there was a shortage of fuel for their ship, and that they could not come. In the spring of 1919 they finally came with a doctor and a load of lumber to make coffins. By then, one third of the Labrador population had died.

Pettigrew, in her book, talks about the many bizarre elixirs, potions and "vaccines" that were used to try to help with the Spanish Flu epidemic. In 1918 Prohibition was in full force and alcohol could only be acquired for medical purposes. This has an interesting connection to a story in the book my son and I published called My Childhood in the Bush. Eight year old Rebecca Nolan was living at Brent on the CNR line in northern Algonquin Park in 1918 where returning troops from Europe stopped regularly. In late 1918 her father and mother, and everyone else except a couple of workers and Rebecca herself, got sick. North Bay's original CNR doctor Archie McMurchy came to Brent with a special train to take everyone to North Bay. Everyone except the Park Ranger and his wife refused to go because of the serious conditions in North Bay.

Eight-year-old Rebecca Atkins and her parents at Brent prior to the flu outbreak there.

Dr. McMurchy gave eight-year-old Rebecca quinine tablets and rum, and taught her to prepare regular medications for her parents. She did this faithfully until she became ill. A plan was established that a white sheet would be put up on the window of any house where someone died. Fortunately, everyone recovered.

The world is becoming a potentially dangerous place because of such diseases, but we are fortunate that the World Health Organization, governments and agencies like those we have seen in operation recently have plans to minimize the problem. AIDS, Ebola, West Nile and several other problems have been identified, and a system is in place to deal with the "big one." The SARS crisis has served us well as a dress rehearsal, and we can rest assured that, whatever happens in the future, the best will be done.

Heritage Perspective Home Page


Past Forward Heritage Limited: 

330 Sumach St. #41, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5A 3K7   Tel. (416)-925-8412


Copyright © Past Forward Heritage Limited