Necrology

The deadly pandemic Spanish Influenza virus came to Victoria, British Columbia at the end of September 1918. Its first known victim here was a theatre manager who died on October 6. Soldiers bound for Siberia were carrying it when they arrived  at Willows Camp, in the District of Oak Bay, beginning on October 2, and eight young men died within three weeks of arrival. In three waves over eighteen months, Spanish influenza visited thousands, residents and visitors alike, and it proved fatal to two or three hundred people in the four municipalities — Victoria, Oak Bay, Saanich and Esquimalt — of Greater Victoria.

We now know those unfortunate victims were caught up in the greatest disaster in human history, counting numbers dead over the pandemic’s two-year rampage. The mortality estimates of the pandemic keep getting revised, ever upward; eighteen million people are now believed to have died in India alone.

The present study uses statistics published by local and provincial authorities on both morbidity — numbers of cases, updated daily at the time — and mortality, deaths, whether by influenza or by pneumonia following influenza.

One summary statistic that is very roughly approximated herein is the mortality rate, expressed as a number per thousand population per unit of time who died of influenza, with or without pneumonia. The mortality rate provides a basis for comparing one city’s experience with those of other places, and so links the Local experience with the Global.

Compared with many places, notably some nearby American cities and military bases, Victoria shows a remarkably low mortality rate from the so-called Spanish Flu. Possible reasons for success, if success it was, are suggested by the historical arc of the pandemic here. The published record provides abundant material for telling that story. Meaningful numbers, on the other hand, are difficult to marshall, given the imprecisions of the day, not the least of which were in identifying and reporting cases of the illness.

This was a time, at the end of the Great War, of Allied troop-build-ups and desperate defenses by Germany and the Central Powers, a time of tumultuous movements of people into and out of the theatre of war. Across the world, people were on the move as never before in human history. The pandemic thrived on the circumstances —  huge war casualties; heavily-polluted improvised environments where humans lived in close quarters with each other and with myriad animals; primitive health services. Suddenly the unprecedented mortality of war had a shadow partner, also a great killer of young men. All this was playing out against a background of recurring epidemic viral contagions — measles, smallpox, yellow fever, polio and meningitis, to name a few — plus such ages-old bacterial scourges as tuberculosis, cholera, scarlet fever, typhoid fever and bubonic plague. Epidemics already killed many thousands every year.

In May 1918, during early days of the pandemic, after seven hundred people died in short order in Spain, health authorities followed the international press in taking up, faut de mieux, the term “Spanish Influenza” to distinguish this strain — virulent, deadly, horrible — from milder forms of influenza. Death records are accessible today with the click of a mouse, and you may find they give “influenza” as cause of death without often revealing the kind of influenza. A rapid progress from onset to death were suggestive of viral pneumonia, a signature of the “Spanish” influenza virus. “Pneumonia following influenza” is a pretty reliable indicator of Spanish Flu. Several bacterial killers  associated with the virus. Descriptions of the illness in 1918 were overwhelmingly anecdotal. Clinical observation of body-fluid samples was limited to identifying bacterial sources. Many scientists already suspected a viral cause of influenza, but microscopes that could image entities as tiny as viruses were not yet in use.

It’s not only the numbers of cases and deaths that are uncertain. In 1918, the provincial statistician could only guess at human populations. The previous census of Canada, conducted in 1911, was utterly hors de combat. This study applies the multiples employed by the statistician to derive population estimates for the district.

This study is also a compilation of the names and pieced-together stories of those who suffered death by Spanish influenza here. No matter how the numbers stack up, each story that can be pieced together opens onto a world of pain. Gathering anecdotal accounts of the local experience is difficult. Crosby’s ground-breaking 1976 history* of the pandemic points up the great forgetting that occurred at the end of the Great War. A war-weary world, it is said, desperately wanted to put all that death behind it.

* Alfred W. Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (Cambridge University Press, 1989; 2nd edition 2003); originally published as Epidemic and Peace: 1918 (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1976).

In the Memorial Grove section of this site, the victims of Spanish flu are grouped to distinguish residents and transient populations, whether military or civilian. Fallen caregivers have a whole section. So do Victorians who died in other parts. The lists are in chronological order. There’s also a section for survivors of Spanish flu.

The statistical and the anecdotal sides of research are united in a document, the death certificate/register, that is publicly available though the Library and Archives Canada website, for soldiers, and the British Columbia Archives, for most civilians and some soldiers. Like the Circumstances of Casualty records of military deaths, many provincial death certificates are scanned, can be scrutinized online and downloaded; or they are accessible with microfilm scanners. Ongoing work aims to gather death registrations in the Greater Victoria area that give as cause of death influenza, with or without pneumonia, between July 1, 1918 and June 30, 1920 — the span of two reporting years of the Provincial Board of Health. The statistical overview of mortality in this study is based on the numbers aggregated by the provincial board. Among other uncertainties, it’s not clear whether the Province’s mortality figures include military deaths. The hand count of deaths attributable to Spanish Flu will serve as a check on the provincial board’s count. Personal details may suggest further research, possibly enough to compose a life story and/or a tale of tribulation and loss. The searchable online Victoria newspaper archive The British Colonist Online Edition 1858-1951 is invaluable for that work, as it is in reconstructing the historical arc of the pandemic here.

In a few cases of mortality, it is possible to stand at the shoulder, as it were, of hospital staff and read the medical records, anecdotal and statistical, of the ravages of the Spanish flu among the soldiers here. These public records are among the personnel files of Library and Archives Canada’s Soldiers of the First World War internet database. They could be the only extant local medical records of the pandemic.

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