Manitoba History: Influenza
by Peter Wilton
In 1918 the Canadian troops in Europe were preparing to come home after a war which was supposed to have lasted four months but actually lasted four years. The Canadians had joined to fight a glorious war for the empire. Instead of glory they found themselves bogged down in trenches fighting for a few feet of land over the bodies of comrade and foe alike. Ironically, as the war in Europe drew to a close, another world war was just beginning. The battle this time was not against other men but rather against an invisible foe, the Spanish influenza.
The isolation which Canada had enjoyed in Europe was not possible in this battle; the virus came to Canada on the very ships that carried the troops home. The Spanish influenza had appeared on the battle fields of Europe earlier and was one of the factors that caused the war to end when it did because many of the German troops were too sick to fight.
Government officials in Manitoba were aware of the influenza as it made its way west from Newfoundland where the first cases in Canada were reported. In Manitoba, which was thousands of miles away from any major port or battlefield, there was a sense of immunity from the conflicts and troubles of the outside world. News from the front was in the newspapers and in the morning the newspaper boys would call out the headlines on street corners. Lists of the dead and missing were placed on lamp posts and anxious parents read these lists praying that their son’s name would not appear.
Manitoba’s isolation from the flu virus came to a dramatic end on 30 September 1918, when a troop train carrying returning soldiers brought three soldiers with the virus. Although the sick soldiers were immediately taken to an isolated convalescent home, this precaution was in vain. On 3 October 1918, two of the soldiers died and the first civilian death from the flu was reported in Manitoba.
On 12 October 1918, several cases of the flu were reported. Schools and universities were closed and public meetings of over six people were banned. People serving the public were ordered to wear gauze masks in the hope of preventing the spread of the disease.
The Spanish Influenza had gained a foothold in the province and was spreading at a rapid rate. By January, 1919, there were 12,863 reported cases of the flu in Winnipeg alone. Of this total 824 people had already succumbed to the virus. It is said that during the height of the influenza, the fear was so palpable that even a child could feel it. In the winter 1919, there were echoes of the Middle Ages in Brandon, Manitoba, as men with horses and carts made their way through the town collecting the bodies of those who died during the night, to await mass burial in the spring.
Dr. A. E. McGavin was one of four doctors in Carman, Manitoba, in 1918. He was unique in that of the four he was the only one that did not contract the flu. With the shortage of doctors due to the war and the epidemic, Dr. McGavin became the only active doctor within a forty mile radius of Carman. His son, Percy, was only a seven year old boy in 1918, but he still has vivid memories of how the flu affected his family. “Dad worked almost around the clock trying to reach the sick and dying in the isolated farmhouses. He drove the rounds in the fall [by auto] but in the winter he was reduced to a horse and cutter. He used to wear a heavy buffalo coat as protection from the cold prairie winter. What perhaps differentiated dad from the other doctors was that he was meticulous about not becoming a carrier of the infection and would always wear robes when he called upon a patient and a gauze mask and he would disinfect everything before coming home. He carried a bottle of rubbing alcohol in his breast pocket which he used to disinfect any equipment that came in contact with the patient.” McGavin never did bring that epidemic home with him. None of his five children contracted the disease, nor did his wife.
Harold Avrill’s family had homesteaded near the town of Togo, Saskatchewan, arriving at the homestead in 1909 from the United States. Harold’s mother was born the year previous to the move and was ten years old the winter that the Spanish influenza arrived at Togo. Togo was hit very hard by the epidemic and many families lost several members. Mrs. Avrill remembers the epidemic very clearly and told her story to her son Harold. “The whole family got the flu except for me. Although I was somewhat sick, I was nowhere near as sick as the rest of the family. Father was able to sit up and offer some assistance. The others were all flat out in bed, not able to keep anything they ate down. The flu hit suddenly. We got no assistance from the town doctor. My brother got so sick we thought he was going to die. We sent for the doctor, he refused to come. Thinking back, he may have been afraid to come for fear of the flu. The only help that we received was from a bachelor neighbour who did not contract the flu. He went into town to get lemons for us. That was the cure, hot lemon juice. The winter of 1918/19 was terrible, and digging graves through the heavy ice and snow was not possible. The bodies were stored in an empty silo till spring when there was one long funeral procession. The influenza ended as quickly as it began. My family was very fortunate in that nobody died. The one brother who came close to death was never physically strong after that terrible winter of 1918/1919.”
By the end of 1919 a total of 60,000 Canadians had died from the flu. One in six Canadians had contracted the infection. The United States was even harder hit, because between December of 1918 and March 1919, 500,000 Americans died of the influenza, or from complications such as pneumonia.
Nobody is certain what causes epidemics of this scale that appear out of nowhere and then become dormant for years. It was not the miracle of medicine or the power of the vaccinations of the time that caused the flu to end. Rather the influenza simply ran its course.
Today with the wonders of modern medicine we have isolated the type A virus which caused the Spanish influenza. However, every winter the flu appears once again in a slightly mutated form. Approximately 5,000 elderly or already incapacitated people die every year from the flu, which leads one to wonder if maybe in the future the flu lies in wait for an opportune time of war and famine to strike huge numbers of people again.
Editors’ Note: On the influenza epidemic across Canada, see Eileen Pettigrew’s The Silent Enemy: Canada and the Deadly Flu of 1918, published by Western Producer Prairie Books in 1983.
Page revised: 6 July 2012