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Spanish Influenza Sweeps the Globe

For the week of Monday, October 19, 2015

"The doctor has not slept for two days...I think some of [the patients] are starving to death. There is no place we can get milk, the milk people are all sick." - Calgary volunteer nurse

On October 24, 1918, Newfoundland volunteer nurse Ethel Dickinson succumbed to one of the worst pandemics in history. The 1918-19 influenza pandemic was a global catastrophe that killed more than 3 percent of the world’s population. Over 50,000 Canadians died. In Okak, northern Labrador, 204 of the 263 residents died, while in Saskatchewan, coffin manufacturers struggled to meet the demand. With most health care workers overseas, caring for the sick largely fell to volunteers, the majority of whom were women.

The influenza came to be called the Spanish flu because it had better media coverage in Spain, making it seem worse there. It began with normal flu symptoms that rapidly worsened and became fatal within a day.

Canadians wore masks over their noses and mouths to prevent the spread of the virus. Alberta, 1918
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-025025
Unlike most influenza strains, the Spanish flu targeted healthy adults between the ages of 20 and 40. Disastrously, this coincided with the average ages of the soldiers on the front lines of the First World War. Whole battalions on both sides were brought down by the virus. The global movement of troops contributed to the alarming speed at which the virus spread. As infected soldiers came home, so did the influenza.

For nurses in Canada, there was no rest to be had in hospitals and communities. All they could offer was comfort and advise fresh air and bed rest. Throughout the country, public gatherings such as at churches and schools were banned. Businesses carried on as usual, though with much smaller staff.

Volunteer nurses at the Emergency Hospital, King George’s Institute, Newfoundland, 1918
© J.C. Parsons / Newfoundland Quarterly, vol. 18 no. 4 p. 21, April 1919.

Most people could not afford to receive hospital care and stayed home. Many women provided home care for flu victims, cooking and cleaning for those who were bedridden. Women who volunteered as nurses or caregivers often became ill themselves as a result of long hours, overwork, and overexposure to the sick. So many people became infected that on October 25, 1918, a testimony presented to a government commission cited hospital overcrowding as a serious problem.

By March 1919, the number of people falling ill had dropped significantly, but there was one last flare up in early 1920. Partially in reaction to the pandemic, a federal Department of Health was established in 1919, which was a major step in the development of Canada’s health care system.

Okak, the northern Labrador community devastated by the flu, is a National Historic Site. The Victorian Order of Nurses, an organization that provided care to remote communities during this and other pandemics, is a National Historic Event.

It’s Women’s History Month! To learn more about Canadian nurses visit First Female Major and Future War Hero. For more about Canadian healthcare visit Father of Canadian Healthcare and “The Woman’s Minister” in the This Week in History Archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada! Click here to learn about the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

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