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.
My two most recent columns described the initial impact of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic in Wellington County, and its peak in late October and early November of 1918.
The number of deaths from the complications of influenza dropped rapidly after Nov. 10 in all areas of the county, as did the number of reported new cases. Indeed, some localities reported no new cases during the second week of the month. And some areas – such as Hollen in Maryborough Township – had yet to report any cases at all.
Many newspaper editors, backed up by a few doctors, happily declared the epidemic over. Others, more familiar with public health issues, warned against that sort of talk, predicting that influenza would linger for some time, and that any slackening of precautions would only make the future all the worse.
There were still quite a few deaths in early November. One of the tragic ones was L.G. Wildfang, the Moorefield merchant, who died at 34 after more than two weeks of severe illness. Four of his five young children were also desperately ill, but all survived.
Many people, though, were only too happy to resume normal activities. After cancelling services for two or three Sundays, most churches reopened on Nov. 10. Many schools reopened the following week. Most had shut down classes for two or three weeks, but the classroom at Glen Allan had been closed for seven.
By early December, the optimists had been proven wrong. New cases appeared, and in some areas, with greater frequency than a month earlier. Some people blamed the weather, which had turned very cold during the last week of the month, heralding a major blizzard on Nov. 30. It was soon clear that Spanish flu was back with a vengeance. December saw more cases than the initial outbreak in October.
A report from The Times of London, widely reprinted in the local weekly press, stated that 12 million people had died worldwide in 12 weeks, compared to 20 million deaths, both military and civilian, in four years of war. And the influenza pandemic had yet to run its course. It was already the deadliest public health threat since the Black Plague of the middle ages, concluded British medical authorities.
As more and more people succumbed, many residents cut back on the Christmas travel and holiday plans. Drayton postponed its New Year’s concert for at least several weeks, not only as a health precaution, but because many of the performers were ill and in bed.
There were a number of deaths during the last week of December and into the new year. Mrs. W.G. Norris, of the Goldstone area, died on Dec. 27 after only four days of illness. She was 53. In Hollen, Mrs. Robert Armstrong died the same day, at 54. That hamlet’s good luck in avoiding Spanish influenza was clearly over.
Nowhere was the second wave of Spanish flu worse than in the Elora and Fergus area. Those towns had, a month earlier, gloated over the fact that they had suffered far less than other localities. Elora did not close schools or churches, but attendance figures were very low during January of 1919 as residents hunkered down in their houses.
Not all cases, of course, were fatal. Among the recovering patients was H.F. Burgess, proprietor of Elora’s Royal Hotel. After being laid up for two weeks in December, Burgess advertised that he was recovered, and that the public need not fear his establishment, which was safe and healthy.
With his barroom closed due to prohibition, Burgess could not afford to lose any more business. Another victim was Robert G. Foote, a young man who farmed with his father at the east side of Elora. His aunt, Mrs. Henry Wissler, cared for him during his recovery. He went on to a career in local politics in Nichol Township, living to the century mark.
One of the saddest of the Elora deaths was Mrs. Bill Duncan, the former Ida Angell, of Elora. She died of pneumonia at 29, leaving a 4-year-old daughter.
Even more tragic was the case of Mrs. Arthur Shafer, of Salem. She came down with flu during the last days of a pregnancy. She gave birth on Dec. 26, and died three days later, two hours after the death of the child. She left three children under nine years of age. The middle one died of influenza on Jan. 3, five days after his mother.
Deaths occurred less frequent by the end of January 1919, but there were still some casualties. In early February, the Spanish flu claimed Mrs. W.E. Andrich, of Palmerston. She had a very severe case; pneumonia set in at once, and she was dead in less than five days, at 37.
And there were cases that may or may not have been linked with Spanish flu. Among those cases was Mrs. Andrew Maitland, a long-time sufferer with asthma and bronchitis. She died at 78 of pneumonia in early February.
Among the last deaths locally associated with Spanish influenza were those of Norm French, who farmed near Alma, and died Feb. 11, leaving a young wife. Coraline Ledingham, of Alma, died a couple of days earlier in Toronto, where she was seeking work.
Though there seem to have been few, if any, deaths after March 1919, there were still cases of Spanish influenza reported in the county. One of the last was Frank Driscoll, of Nichol, who became ill in April, and struggled with a long recovery from pneumonia.
There were, no doubt, many later cases that were not reported in the newspapers or attended by doctors. Not every case was a severe one. Many people simply shrugged off their illness as a seasonal annoyance, similar to what they contracted in other years.
Precise diagnosis was also a problem, even for medical men. The important characteristic of the 1918-19 Spanish flu was the appearance of pneumonia late in the course of the illness, and often when the patient seemed to be recovering. Much was made of the fact that severe pneumonia would set in quickly, claiming the life of the patient in four or five days, and sometimes even less.
But not every case followed that pattern. Many patients died after an illness of two or even three weeks.
The pandemic seemed to last longer elsewhere, particularly on the Canadian prairies, with cases reported there into mid 1919. It is a difficult task, given the imprecise records, to estimate the death toll from Spanish influenza.
In Wellington it was probably in the range of five to seven per 1,000 population. The number who fell ill and recovered was many times that.
As cases became less common in the county, there were reports and rumours of various complications and permanent effects from the Spanish flu.
One was a type of sleeping sickness that reportedly set in a couple of weeks after the flu. Patients would lapse into a deep sleep, almost a coma, and not waken for eight or 10 days. Many cases were reported through the northern United States, but there seems to have been no outbreak locally.
The past three weeks have contained a summary of the course of Spanish influenza in Wellington County in 1918 and 1919.
It is far from complete, and a thorough investigation is beyond the scope of a weekly popular history column. I’ll leave the topic on the table, hoping a graduate student might pick it up to explore in a senior research paper or thesis.
The subject is a fascinating one, particularly in light of the influenza strain prevalent this year.
*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Nov. 27, 2009.