The Spanish Lady

26 September 1918

It was 1918, and the Great War was into its fifth year. In March, Germany launched a massive offensive on the Western Front in a desperate attempt to break the military stalemate before American doughboys arrived in force. But as soldiers of the Allied and Central Powers grappled in the mud of France and Belgium, a new, insidious enemy emerged, affecting both sides without discrimination. Amidst the clamour of war, it initially went unnoticed. But as tens of thousands at the front and at home began to experience symptoms of fatigue, loss of appetite, aches, stuffy nose, cough, high fever and in some cases death, it became clear that the world was facing something new and terrible. People called it the “Spanish” influenza, or the “plague of the Spanish Lady.”

Those first affected were in fact the lucky ones as they acquired an immunity that largely protected them from a far more virulent form of the disease that emerged later than year. Hundreds of millions of people around the world fell ill. With a mortality rate of 10-20 per cent, millions succumbed either of influenza, or of secondary infections, including pneumonia. Oddly, a disproportionate number were young adults rather than the very young or old. Pandemic experts place the number of dead at 50-100 million, equivalent to 3-6 per cent of the world’s population, before the disease petered out by early 1919. In comparison, “only” 17 million soldiers and civilians died in the Great War. Canada got off relatively lightly. 50,000 Canadians died of the flu in the space of a few months, compared to 65,000 Canadian military deaths in four and a half years of war.

Today, we know the “Spanish flu” as the avian H1N1 subtype of the influenza A virus. But in 1918 the cause of the disease was unknown. Most doctors thought it was a type of bacterial infection. Regardless, nobody was sure how to treat the disease, or how to stop its transmission. The only advice given was to avoid crowds and sneezing or coughing individuals, walk to work, eat well, and get a lot of rest.

Even the origins of the disease were uncertain. With news heavily censored in belligerent countries, accounts of the disease were initially reported in neutral Spain, and so it became identified with that country. One theory placed the disease’s origins in Kansas in the U.S. heartland. Another identified China as its point of origin, with the disease initially transmitted by infected Chinese workers who arrived in France via Canada to work behind the front lines. Regardless, the flu quickly spread around the world as thousands of infected soldiers travelled between home and the trenches.

Ottawa’s first fatality occurred on 26 September 1918, roughly two weeks after the first deaths in Canada were reported in Quebec City. Jules Lemieux, a 72-year old civil servant, succumbed to respiratory failure after a 5-day struggle. By mid-October, there were thousands of cases, with the city recording 50 deaths per day.

Ottawa’s Board of Health ordered the closure of schools and theatres, and forbade public gatherings. After some initial hesitation, churches cancelled services. The city’s streetcars were fumigated with formaldehyde. Stores and government offices closed at 4:00pm; the argument being that the body’s vitality was at its lowest ebb and hence most susceptible to the disease in the late afternoon. Over considerable public opposition, Ottawa’s Mayor Fisher cancelled sporting events, including a ploughing competition to have been held at the Experimental and Booth Farms. Although outdoors activities were considered safe, Fisher was concerned about people crowding onto streetcars to attend them.

In contrast, pharmacy hours were extended, with Sunday shopping temporarily permitted. With doctors prescribing whisky to patients, especially those in the pneumonia stage of the disease, anxious people crowded into drug stores, the only legal vendors of hard liquor during Prohibition. But pressure to allow drug stores to sell whisky without a $2 doctor’s prescription was resisted. Fisher argued that “the better physical condition of people, resulting from prohibition, had saved a great many lives.”

Despite precautionary measures, hospitals were flooded with patients. With medical staff also sickening, healthy doctors and nurses were taxed almost beyond human endurance. To help cope, a registry of voluntary nurses was set up by Lillian Freiman, wife of A. J. Freiman, the owner of Freiman’s department’s store on Rideau Street. Upon her recommendation, temporary hospitals were also established in schools and in the University of Ottawa dormitory on Laurier Avenue.

The disease hit all segments of society. But a disproportionate number of deaths occurred in the poor, largely francophone and Irish working class districts of LeBreton Flats, the home of the CP Railway Station, Lower Town, and areas adjacent to the Grand Truck Railway corridor than ran along the Rideau canal to Central (Union) Station. With the railways the main entry point for the disease, those working on or living close to the railways were at greatest risk. Over-crowded living quarters and poor hygiene were other contributing factors.

Hospital near Fort Riley, Kansas in 1918,
A Flu Hot Spot
, Wikipedia

There were many sad stories. On Sunday, 6 October, George Neville of 61 Augusta Street, his wife Irene and their newborn child died within hours of each other in the same hospital. In Rochesterville on the city’s outskirts, a woman and her eight children were found ill by a worried neighbour. The mother was almost unconscious, while the children were laying about the house, all stricken with influenza.

With most able-bodied men in military service, the burden of caring for the sick and dying fell to women. Mayor Fisher called for their mobilization, asking the women of Ottawa “to get into the trenches themselves.” Women switched from making socks for soldiers to gauze masks and “pneumonia jackets” (padded cotton coats to keep in the body’s heat, supposedly hastening the disease’s progress and stimulating respiration). Female volunteers cared for those unable to get to hospitals. An appeal also went out for car owners to deliver supplies and nurses to homes of the ill, while the Central Canada Exhibition Office was converted into a soup kitchen, staffed by women.

Although many volunteered to help at great personal risk, some exploited the situation. Dubious patent remedies were sold to desperate people. “Fruit-A-Tives” billed itself as the wonderful fruit medicine that “gives the power to resist the disease.” A box of six tablets sold for $2.50, equivalent to about $37 in today’s money. Even Murphy-Gamble, the big Spark’s Street department store, encouraged women to dress warmly “To Check the ‘Flu.” According to its advertisement in The Ottawa Journal, the store claimed that “The woman who persists in wearing gauze undergarments and illusionary stockings in the face of unfavorable elements not only flirts with pneumonia, but courts the Pale Spectre.”

By mid-November, the disease appeared to have largely run its course in Ottawa, and life gradually returned to normal, or as normal as it could be with so many families having lost loved ones or friends. On 23 November, 1918, The Globe newspaper reported that the Spanish flu had claimed 570 lives in the capital, giving a death rate of 548 per 100,000 people, a far worse rate than that of most other major Canadian cities.

The influenza pandemic underscored the value of a co-ordinated national approach to Canadian health care leading to the establishment of the federal Department of Health in 1919.


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