The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
Last week’s column described the appearance of Spanish influenza in the southern portion of Wellington during October of 1918.
Interestingly, flu was rampant in Kitchener and Waterloo County before cases appeared in Wellington in numbers. As well, some areas suffered much more than others.
A characteristic of the 1918 strain of flu was that its worst effects appeared near the end of the infection, when the patient seemed to be on the path to recovery.
In those cases, the patient would suffer from pneumonia, due to the breakdown of the lining of air passages and the buildup of fluid in the lungs. Often, the air passages would begin bleeding. Death could overtake the patient in a matter of hours. Most frightening was that young, healthy people seemed to be the most vulnerable.
Deaths in the southern portion of Wellington peaked in the first days of November. Among the fatalities were Mrs. Osborne Warden of the Mimosa area. She left five small children. At least three farmers in their 20s died in Eramosa Township.
In Pilkington, James Cleghorn seems to have been the first victim, dying on Oct. 21 at 27 years of age. Four days later, James Ross succumbed at 33. In Elora, editor Dick Mills of the Elora Express went to Prescott to care for his brother. While he was absent others at the paper fell ill, causing the paper to miss an issue.
To the east, Erin’s newspaper reported a number of cases in the countryside, but only a couple in town. Such reports should be considered with suspicion: merchants were anxious to minimize reports of influenza, fearing that farmers would take their business to other towns.
Patent medicine purveyors and so-called medical experts had a field day during November. One syndicated column advised people to use regularly a “pleasant laxative” to purge the disease from their bodies. Another advised a mixture of hot mustard foot baths and hot lemonade to combat the flu; the lemonade, at least, would provide some Vitamin C. A maker of patent medicine advised the public that its “aneuric tablets,” taken every two hours, would combat bronchitis, and flush the kidneys and bladder of poison. The compound was probably a diuretic, lowering the fluid levels in the body.
Even the Grand Trunk Railway got into the act. The company, struggling near bankruptcy, advised potential passengers to book trips to California to avoid flu and colds.
In the north of Wellington County, influenza progressed much as it had in the south. By mid October 1918, cases were common in the rural areas north and west of Orangeville in Dufferin and Grey Counties, a good 10 days before they became common in this county. But locals knew that they would not be spared. As well, reports streamed in of expatriates in larger centres, on the Canadian prairies, and in the American midwest who had been cut down by influenza.
Those cases underlined the extent of the outward migration of Wellington County people during the previous generation.
Seeking to gain some measure of control of the situation, Mount Forest’s Board of Health and school board met on Oct. 21. Unlike other towns, such as Fergus, they decided to close the schools and churches, the pool room, and the library.
That was a reversal of policy. At a meeting five days earlier they had decided to keep the schools open. Out of fear, many parents were already keeping their children at home. School attendance averaged about 60% before the closure.
Dr. McPhaden, the Medical Officer of Health, advised the public to transact business in stores quickly, and to avoid lingering at the post office to exchange gossip and ribald stories.
A major consequence of the closures in Mount Forest was the cancellation of a Chautauqua Festival scheduled for the last week of October.
One factor that undoubtedly encouraged the spread of flu was that travel increased. People from the cities returned home to look after ill relatives, and others went to care for their family members who were ill in Toronto and elsewhere.
Dr. McPhaden believed that influenza was much worse in the countryside than in town. Like other medical men, he realized that compiling statistics was impossible. Actual diagnosis of influenza was difficult. Some apparent victims merely had severe colds, and others with flu did not consult a doctor at all.
The unloading of caskets from baggage cars became a common site at local railway stations in early November. In many cases there was only a brief service at the station, followed by a few words at the cemetery. Many people preferred not to go the services, fearing that they might become infected themselves. As well, the weather, which had been fairly mild in October, turned cold and nasty in November, encouraging people to stay inside. Mrs. William Arnott, a flu casualty at 37, received a station funeral; her husband attended but was very ill himself.
The question of school closures was a controversial one. The provincial government thought that shutting them in rural areas might make sense, but in villages and towns children would mingle whether or not the schools operated. Further, evidence suggested closing schools had no impact on the progress of the disease. In any case, most townships closed their schools for two weeks, and others for three and even four weeks.
Directives from provincial health authorities were sometimes contradictory, advising that there was no danger from engaging in regular travel and activities, and in the same directive pointing out the dangers of mixing with strangers in public. In contrast to the advertising of the patent medicine men, public health officials emphasized that there was no medicine to deal with the disease, and that pneumonia was the great danger, particularly toward the end of the infection. To many people, that advice was more alarming than comforting.
Doctors advised keeping the feet warm, and staying in well ventilated rooms with daytime temperatures of 72 degrees and 65 at night. For many households that was difficult. Due to wartime conditions there was a shortage of coal across North America in the fall of 1918. Homeowners had to conserve their fuel. Many shut off some rooms of their houses, and let night time temperatures fall below the recommendation.
In assessing the flu epidemic in his Nov. 14 issue, editor A.W Wright of the Mount Forest Confederate blamed the fuel shortage for the severity of the epidemic, claiming that chilly, damp rooms encouraged the spread of the disease there, just as damp, cold trenches had fostered it on the battlefields of Europe. It was Wright’s opinion that the flu was much more prevalent in larger towns and cities than in the countryside. He attributed the difference to the purer, cleaner air of the rural areas, and the crowded conditions in cities. There was no data to back up such conclusions, but Wright’s opinions were consisted with the anti-urban sentiments so common at that time.
Among the heroes of the epidemic were individuals and members of the medical profession who unhesitatingly stepped forward to care for the ill. Many of those people contracted the flu themselves, and at least one medic, Dr. Ken McKinnon of Guelph, lost his life.
There were several announcements that a vaccine would soon be available as a defence against the Spanish flu, but none materialized. Though it seemed that the worst was over by the middle of November of 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic was far from over. It would linger into 1919.
Next week: The end of the pandemic in Wellington County.
*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Nov. 20, 2009.