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T.W. Paterson column: 102 years ago the Spanish Flu met British grit

In effect, a declaration of marshal law.
An emergency hospital during the Spanish influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas, circa 1918. (National Museum of Health and Medicine photo)

A ban on public meetings, assemblies, lodge meetings and entertainments of any kind was, in effect, a declaration of marshal law.

Four stark headlines in a single issue of last week’s Times-Colonist encapsulated the latest news about coronavirus, the world’s latest major epidemic:

“Air Canada scrubs all flights to China to April 10”; “As world scrambles, experts warn spread all but certain”; “Globe ill prepared for virus, says Canadian WHO expert”; “B.C. beefing up defence as case count reaches 7”.

Worse than SARS, the last major outbreak, where this medical emergency will take us remains to be seen. Inevitably, the same news sources that bring us the latest details of this new epidemic chronicle pandemics of the past. In particular, perhaps the worst of them all, the 1918 so-called Spanish Flu epidemic that infected an estimated 500 million people and killed 20-50 million men, women and children, many of whom were young and otherwise healthy.

The Cowichan Valley didn’t escape unscathed either and, 20 years ago in the Chronicles I wrote a three-part series, headlined “Deadly epidemic fought with true grit.” As coronavirus continues to claim more victims and to dominate the news, I thought it timely to look again at how the 1918 Flu affected Cowichan residents:

“What has become the Spanish Flu, although we now know that it originated in Kansas, U.S.A., officially struck the Cowichan Valley on October 9th, when J. Islay Mutter, reeve of North Cowichan, and Duncan mayor E.F. Miller, acting upon the advice of Dr. Watson Dykes, medical health officer, issued a ban on public meetings: ‘By virtue of a special order-in-council, notice is hereby given that from this date until further notice all public gatherings, assemblies, lodge meetings and entertainments of every kind are prohibited. These regulations apply to every class of public gathering’.”

This was, in effect, a declaration of marshal law.

In the same issue of the Cowichan Leader, readers were urged not to panic, that “there is absolutely no need for alarm to be occasioned by the precautions taken to prevent a possible spread of influenza. Do not believe one-tenth of the gossip you hear and do not spread any of it. There is not a single bad case of any form of influenza in the district at the present time.”

Despite world-wide contagion and a death toll unheard of since the Black Plaque of the Middle Ages, locally, it seemed to be a tempest in a teapot. Only a week after Dr. Dykes urged extreme caution, two outlying churches, St. Peter’s, Quamichan, and St. Andrew’s, Cowichan Station, were allowed to hold Sunday services. Duncan churches, however, would remain closed for another week, Lake Cowichan churches until further notice.

The slight relaxation of quarantine was mentioned in the same issue of the newspaper which reported that Mrs. Horgan’s two daughters who were attending school in Victoria were seriously ill with influenza.

Within two weeks it seemed that the crisis was easing and the Leader congratulated officials for having taken charge: “The wisdom of the preventive measures adopted in Duncan and North Cowichan is shown by the fact that there was yesterday not a single case of Spanish influenza in Duncan and only two or three in the whole Cowichan district.

“There have been 11 cases at Cowichan Lake but all the patients have recovered satisfactorily. The situation as far as this district is concerned, is exceedingly bright. We have been very fortunate in that those cases which have developed have been of a mild nature. Dr. Dykes can give no idea when it will be possible to relax the present orders, but the notice will be given as this course is deemed advisable.”

But, the Leader cautioned, “If one single case, to say nothing of one single life, can be saved by the restrictions now in force, they should be cheerfully observed.

The editor cautioned against “irresponsible gossip… It is quite true that in many parts of the North American continent there has been heavy mortality and far stricter preventive measures have become necessary than are being enforced here. All we have to do is keep smiling, accept with complacency and thankfulness the situation and refrain from passing on wild stories of the epidemic.”

It was British grit at its best: Stand firm and adversity will pass.

Which, of course, it did. But it would be four bitter months and numerous deaths before the Cowichan Valley would be freed of Spanish Flu.

In fact, the end of the horrific First World War, in November, brought continued and spreading pestilence to Cowichan residents. By the end of October, Duncan had 13 new cases and 25 more had been reported from such outlying areas as Cobble Hill, Genoa Bay and Crofton. Although Dr. Dykes assured the public that these cases were of “a mild form” and had stabilized, at Cowichan Lake several loggers declined to go to work, complaining of flu; they were suspected by some to be faking.

But, within a week, flu cases increased by a third and the Valley had officially posted its first fatality, a Japanese resident identified only as Nishio, at Koksilah. Two alleged “carriers” recently returned from Vancouver, were thought to have brought the bug home. Dr. Dykes reminded the populace of the ban on public activities: “No church services, school or meetings.”

“The very best and surest preventive of this malady is fresh air,” advised a newspaper editorial. “Filth of any kind is trouble. There are plenty of backyards which should be cleaned up properly. A shovel, a broom and a smile will keep off influenza germs.” This Pollyannaesque approach may have been assuring — stiff upper lip and all that — but it had little semblance to reality. While the post office met the crisis by fumigating all incoming mail, organizers of the Island Seed Fair announced its postponement.

Duncan druggist Jesse Gidley reminded residents there was no cure for influenza. Rather, he suggested a tonic of tasteless cod liver oil with hydrophosphates of lime and soda, and “10 to one you will not be bothered with the germ”.

By Nov. 14 — three days after Armistice took effect in Europe, ending four years of world war — the situation in Duncan appeared to be improving. But six new cases of a more virulent form of the disease had been reported at Cowichan Lake, Cowichan Station, Cobble Hill and Shawnigan Lake.

A week later, another flip flop with the Leader headline, “Influenza apparently on the wane,” and Dr. Dykes said he thought it likely that the ban on public meetings could be lifted. (Ironically, many had already defied the ban to celebrate Armistice.) It was reported that the staff of King’s Daughters Hospital were coping “blithely” despite the fact that three of its nurses (Misses Nott, Tait and Roberts) and the cook were ill; a Mr. Wright, staff position unstated, and a relief cook were on the mend. Beds of both the Duncan and Chemainus hospitals were full.

Despite the season, and ban on public gatherings, an unidentified local church insisted upon holding Sunday services outdoors.

That same week when Dr. Dykes said he hoped to relax restrictions on public liberty, the two latest victims, a brother and sister of Cowichan Tribes, were buried at St. Ann’s, Tzhouhalem, and Dykes had to remind the public to be vigilant.

When school resumed with fewer than 50 per cent of the students in attendance, classes were again suspended until further notice. Thanksgiving, postponed by order of the federal government, was held Dec. 1.

Death notices continued to appear in the Leader: Samuel Carley, aged 30; Walter Newton, 12 years, 10 months; Alexander Adamson, 42; Mrs. Okado, mother of four including one only four months old; Mrs. Johnny Page. Also dead was druggist Gidley, he of the cod liver oil and phosphates of lime and soda tonic. Just 33, an athlete, sportsman and “keen automobilist,” he left a widow pregnant and critically ill with double pneumonia to care for two young children.

“Don’t crowd; no children’s parties” was the Leader headline for Dec. 19. The official ban of public gatherings remained in force and violators were subject to heavy but unspecified penalty; curiously, the ban applied only to gatherings of more than six people. Even more curious was the fact that some people believed that “children’s parties will do no harm”. Dr. Dykes disagreed: far better to forego some of the joys of Christmas-tide than to risk human life, he said.

His yeoman service throughout the crisis hadn’t gone unnoticed, it being reported that, at the height of the epidemic, he’d taken 26 telephone queries during a single breakfast.

On Boxing Day, the day of popular druggist Gidley’s well attended funeral, Dykes stated that the emergency had eased but “another wave of influenza appeared to be traveling westward from the east”.

Christmas 1918 was mostly a family affair although church congregations were allowed to attend services of only 10 at a time.

Not until New Years’ Eve was the state of siege finally lifted but for individual cases of quarantine “which will be vigorously enforced even if men have to be stationed to enforce it”.

Schools reopened with reduced enrollment and teaching staff on Jan. 6. At Somenos, burial services were held for Ayakko Miyake, aged three years, four months, and the infant daughter of Mr. and Mrs. S. Alexander. A week later, Mrs. J.C. Gidley, recently widowed and still recovering from pneumonia, gave birth to a son. On Jan. 16 the Cowichan Women’s Institute announced that the Great Victory Ball to celebrate Armistice, long postponed, would be held on Jan. 30.

Officially, for residents of Cowichan Station, Christmas was held on Feb. 15, 1919. That’s when Santa Claus, having “recovered from an attack of influenza,” hosted a party in the community hall.

Only then did the Spanish Flu epidemic became a part of local lore.