1918 influenza epidemic struck all corners of county

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.

Thorning Revisited