Flu epidemic peaked locally in November 1918

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.

Readers will not recall the great influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Although that outbreak oc­curred 101 years ago, it has continued to interest medical historians and public health officials ever since.

No one, though, seems to have studied the progress of that pandemic in the context of Wellington County and the surrounding areas.

As it turns out, the effects of the outbreak of Spanish influenza, as it was popularly known, seem to have been somewhat uneven, strik­ing some localities far more severely than others. As well, public officials were not al­ways in agreement on the best ways to deal with the illness.

Spanish influenza could strike very quickly, causing high fever and respiratory in­fection. In serious cases, the air passages in the lungs broke down, causing internal bleed­ing and a buildup of blood and fluid in the lungs. Those pati­ents would, in essence, drown when their lungs could no longer take in oxygen from the air.

The epidemic gained a strong foothold in Europe in the early fall of 1918, among soldiers battling in the last months of World War I. Many of them were already suffering from poor health, inadequate food, and appalling living con­ditions.

Their weakened im­mune systems were easy tar­gets for the influenza virus.

Most alarming to public health officials was the rapid spread of the disease.

Five weeks after the officials realiz­ed they were dealing with an epidemic, cases were reported all over the northern hemis­phere, an astounding rate of transmission in an era before scheduled airlines.

In this area of Ontario, Kitchener and Waterloo County were the first to experience widespread cases. By the first week of October, some doctors estimated that there were 4,000 cases in Kitchener alone.

By then, the public was already alarmed after reading of the rapid spread of Spanish flu elsewhere, and the toll it took on its victims.

Some doctors stated that it claimed the lives of 10% of its victims. And what was most frightening was that many of the fatalities were among young adults who had been perfectly healthy only a few days earlier.

The ministers of many local churches used the epidemic in Waterloo County as the subject of their sermons on Oct. 6.

It was divine judgment, they be­lieved, that the disease should strike Waterloo County and its German population. Germans had caused the war, and those in Waterloo County had, un­patri­otically, resisted the re­nam­ing of Berlin to Kitchener.

Medical authorities knew that sort of talk was nonsense, and even dangerous, because it could lure people into a false sense of security. Dr. H.O. Howitt, the Guelph Medical Officer of Health, was one. On Oct. 7 he issued an advisory to the public which was published in many of the papers across Wellington.

At that point, there were only a few scattered cases in the county, but Dr. Howitt pre­dicted they would be rampant in two weeks or less. He noted that the present was the time to take precautions.

Later it would be too late, though it was likely that there would be calls to close public events and schools.

People should avoid mingling and public contact at once.

He noted that it was difficult to distinguish between the Span­ish flu and more ordinary strains of flu and the common cold.

Dr. Howitt advised the public to be particularly cau­tious at the first signs of what might seem to be a cold. Some of his recommendations seem obvious: covering mouths when sneezing and coughing, and never sharing hand­ker­chiefs.

He urged people to by no fruit or vegetables from gro­cers who appeared ill, and he suspected that bottled milk might be best avoided for the duration of the outbreak.

At the fist sign of any illness, he advised the public to take to their beds, and have as little contact with anyone else as possible. It was especially im­portant for storekeepers and teachers to do so.

He noted the Spanish strain of influenza could be deadly, but revised many of the figures then in circulation downward. Among young, healthy people, he claimed that about 15% of cases would lead to pneumonia, and 3% of those would die. Those percentages would be much higher among those who were already ill, or old and weak.

As Dr. Howitt’s advice was going into print, reports of the local cases circulated, and there was a notice of the first death with a local connection. George E. Farley, who had spent part of his childhood in Fergus, died at Saint John, where he was a corporal attached to the army headquarters staff.

There were several more cases of deaths that week among people who had grown up in Wellington County but had mov­ed elsewhere. That spread the sense of unease among local residents. A wire service story on Oct. 9 caused further alarm. Ac­cording to the report, the situation in Kitch­ener had reached the point where doctors and nurses could no longer cope.

An emergency meeting that day of the Kitchener Board of Health, council, prominent citi­zens, and major employers. Dr. Lackner advised that the medical profession, with many of its members victims them­selves, could not deal with even the most serious cases, and that an alarming rise in fatalities was inevitable.

Mayor Gross appealed to members of various service clubs to volunteer as emer­gency nursing staff.

But there was no influx of trained medi­cal people from anywhere: all were preparing to deal with the epidemic in their own communities.

Prayers to be spared from the epidemic were part of Thanksgiving church services, but attendance was small at most churches, as people heed­ed the advice of Dr. Howitt and others to minimize their expos­ure to others.

Cases of Spanish flu were appearing across the southern part of the county by mid-Octo­ber.

Officials in Eramosa and West Garafraxa closed the schools in their jurisdictions, and most service clubs and volunteer groups cancelled their October meetings.

In Bel­wood, Frank Hut­chinson clos­ed his store when he and his wife came down with the flu.

Some people believed that fine weather in early October helped to keep the outbreak at bay. Many farmers in the east­ern part of Wellington were glad to have their children at home to help harvest turnips and potatoes.

In Elora, the Board of Health decided not to close the schools because there were, at that point, only a handful of cases in the village.

Members of the board assured the public that they were following pro­vincial directives, and had the matter well in hand.

They advised people to take to their beds at the first sign of illness. Otherwise, “undue al­arm over the epidemic is not warranted in Elora where there are only a few cases, all well in hand,” stated their press release.

Despite the reassurances, many groups cancelled meet­ings and gatherings, including an interdenominational prayer service on Oct. 10.

Fergus, like Elora, did not close its schools.

Dr. Arm­strong, appearing before a school board meeting at the request of the trustees, told the mem­bers that Spanish flu seldom struck young children, and that there was no need to shut down the public school.

“Flu is not a child’s disease, and is not carried by them,” he told the board.

The Fergus Board of Edu­cation accepted Dr. Arm­strong’s somewhat dubious advice, but it seems that many parents did not.

Attendance at local schools fell to less than 75% at the end of October at both the public and high schools.

It is interesting that Dr. Abra­ham Groves, who in 1918 was the best known physician in Wellington, and who owned the Fergus hospital, seems to have made no public pro­nouncement on the Spanish flu pandemic, nor stated what the situation was at his hospital.

Next week: The outbreak continues, and the situation in northern Wellington.

This column originally appeared in the Advertiser on Nov. 13, 2009.

Thorning Revisited