Few lessons learned from 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak

As the world ripples over the current COVID-19 pandemic, it is hard not to draw parallels to the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1917-18 and into 1919, following the end of the Great War.

Canada did not escape the clutches of the deadly virus then, and is not escaping it now. But it is good to look back to 1918 when the first wave of Spanish Flu hit, to see if there are any clues   that we can use today, 100-years later.

In recent years there have been other global scares like SARS, MIRS, H1N1 and EBOLA. In each case, there were alarms going off that were eventually responded to with new drugs an a better understanding of what they are fighting, but there is something very different about this COVID-19 strain.

Medical researchers have since been able to pinpoint exactly how and when the Spanish Flu made its way to Canada.

June 26th, 1918, 763 Canadian soldiers left England aboard the troop carrier, Araguayan, returning to the waiting arms of overjoyed wives, parents and siblings. By the time the ship docked in Canada, 175 soldiers and crew had fallen severely ill.

At the same time, the civilian steam ship, the Solali, was granted special licence to use a port after serving quarantine. This permission is called a “pratique”. It was going from the Grosse Island on the St. Lawrence which had been set up as a headquarters for the quarantine, going to Quebec City, only a short distance but by the time it arrived, several members of its crew were sick. The craft was immediately sent back to the Grosse Island to look after the stricken crew and to have the entire ship fumigated. By the 11th of July, 1918, 72 crewman were in need of hospital care with the Flu.

It also arrived on Canadian shore at Halifax aboard hospital ships returning the wounded soldiers, according to the Records of the Department of Health and Welfare.

It stared its speed very slowly at first and during that time most doctors didn’t recognize it as anything more that a bout with a cold or the (normal) flu.

The Calgary Herald was the first major newspaper in Canada to connect the dots, and around the end of September, 1918, it began publishing sickness status across the province, watching the count grow at alarming rates.

The Flu just exploded in Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa, and down the St. Laurence into Southern Ontario. On one voyage returning stationed soldiers back to Europe, the troop carrier City of Cairo, left port at Montreal with 1057 troops. By the time it had reach Davenport, England, on October 11th, only a few of all those on board were well enough to care for the others who had started falling ill shortly after departure. There were 32 dead, 244 transferred to the hospital, most of them were in need of stretchers.


Then, medical researchers had the 1889-90 Russian Flu still in the rearview when an estimated 40 per cent of the world’s population were infected. It was also known as the Asiatic flu. By the time it had made its way around the world, it had taken an estimated one-million souls.

That was a time before there was any knowledge of a thing called a virus, and so finding a vaccine was impossible although there were premature attempts widely distributed, most of which were ineffective at best and deadly at worst. It wasn’t until 1933 when Brantford’s James Hillier was instrumental in the development of the first Electron Microscope, opening a previously unknown super-microscopic world.

In Canada, quarantining attempt failed in 1918 so the government seriously considered forced compliance with strict quarantining measured and the wearing of masks was to be made mandatory for front line workers, bank tellers, store clerks etc.

In Chicago’s desperate search for a remedy, doctors created various concoctions of narcotics and alcohol which was approved for use in treating the sick and available only by subscription. In one month, Chicago druggists filled 741,825 prescriptions in total, 441,641 directly for the treatment of flu.

An official report from the Vice-Chairman of the War Committee of the Cabinet on the Establishment of a Federal Department of Public Health was dated Oct. 25th, 1918 In an attempt to find out why Canada’s repose to the pandemic was so slow and uncoordinated.

It read: “The recent epidemic of Spanish influenza points to the need of a Federal Health authority. Throughout this crisis there was no organization competent to handle the problem a national scale. The control of the disease was necessarily left to local bodies, many of them ill-informed and all of them inevitably lacking in coordinated effort.”

The second wave hit in the fall and winter of 1919, and Spanish Flu did not fully let up on its grip until 1920.

Brantford born scents and inventor, James Hillier opened an invisible world which has led to today’s understanding of the micro-world within and around us. JAMES HILLIER FOUNDATION

Related Posts