T.W. Paterson: Today’s flu bug is nothing like that of 1918

“Will not the women of Nanaimo come forward in this emergency to help their sisters who are less fortunately situated?” —Nanaimo Free Press.

“Will not the women of Nanaimo come forward in this emergency to help their sisters who are less fortunately situated?” —Nanaimo Free Press.


In 1918 it was Spanish Influenza aka, because of the raging world war, Flanders ‘Flu. By either name it accounted for an estimated 10 million deaths world-wide during a year-long reign of terror.

Nanaimo didn’t go unscathed. Three weeks before the war to end all wars ground to a bloody end, the headline “Four deaths took place this morning” appeared in the Nov. 2, 1918 Free Press. It would be followed by further reports of fatalities as the epidemic took hold of the community. The four deceased were Andrew Thompson, 37, Mrs. Elaine Marion Russell, 38, Mrs. Barbara Wilster Shaw, age not given but she left six young children, and George William Langham, 27 and married just weeks before.

A front-page appeal for volunteers was addressed to “Nanaimo Women: Conditions in the General Hospital today are such that if volunteer help is not forthcoming very soon, it will be necessary to refuse admission to this institution to any more patients. Will not the women of Nanaimo come forward in this emergency to help their sisters who are less fortunately situated?”

Another report declared that Dr. O.G. Ingham, Provincial Health Officer, was considering making the wearing of masks compulsory, and imposing quarantines on houses suspected of being infected. The situation, he said, was far more serious than the general public realized “and if the apathy which appears to be shown to the advice tendered by the medical men of the district continues much longer, the only course will be the drastic one of isolating every house in the city and district where a single case of the epidemic has made its appearance, and in such a manner that no person living in that house shall have any opportunity whatever of communicating with those outside.”

He stressed the importance of wearing “the flu mask” both in public and in private as the only effective method of preventing infection passing from one to another. He wasn’t referring to surgical masks but to home-made ones. “Anyone,” he said, “who has witnessed the terrible sufferings through which sufferers from the peculiar form of pneumonia which follows the influenza and which follows so often ends fatally, would never fail to take [e]very possible precaution, no matter what personal inconvenience might be entailed thereby, in order to save themselves and others from liability to this suffering and probable death in agony…

“The wearing of the mask entails neither any great inconvenience nor discomfort, while the resultant good which may be derived by the community at large may well be incalculable. Therefore WEAR MASKS.”

Immediately alongside Dr. Ingham’s directive is a short notice informing readers that Government Agent Stanley McB. Smith had received a small stock of liquor from Victoria — “for vending to the public in order to relieve the situation called into being by the ‘Flu’”. However, because of the limited supply, only those providing a doctor’s prescription would be served!

To meet the expected rush, Mr. Smith had volunteered to sacrifice his own free time to attend at the provincial buildings until 5 o’clock Saturday evening, and part of Sunday afternoon. (Is it the Liquor Control Board we have to thank for coining the expression, “for medicinal purposes only”? —TW)

Not since the bubonic plaque and cholera epidemics had there been this “deadliest sort of pestilence”. What bitter irony it was that, after four horrendous years, the worst war in history was steadily grinding down, with the German armies in full retreat — as, halfway around the world, Nanaimo and most other major Canadian communities, the Cowichan Valley included, were besieged by an invisible enemy.

“It is hard to be calm and brave in the face of death on every side,” the Press declared in an editorial that seems to have been, at best, a mile wide of the medical mark: “…Perhaps the absence of so many of our bravest at the war robbed us of much of the moral strength needed to face mortal danger coolly and fearlessly… It is the giving way of the heart that causes most of the deaths. Moral character affects the heart amazingly. Keep up the heart by persistent cheerfulness. Refuse to be down-hearted, no matter what happens. The best cure of all is a well-trained calmness, and a brave endurance[!] Besides, we owe that to our humanity, to stand up as men against trouble or anxiety.”

Today we know all too well that dealing with a pandemic requires so much more than wishful thinking and a stiff upper lip.


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