The plague approaches

The “second wave” of virulent, deadly Spanish Influenza made North American landfall at Boston on August 27, 1918. It quickly spread through military camps and the teeming cities of northeastern United States.

Massachusetts in Great Pandemic website. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [archived]

In Canada the first indications of Spanish Flu were recorded on September 8 at a school in Victoriaville, Quebec.

François Dubois, Jean-Pierre Thouez and Denis Goulet. “A Geographic Analysis of the Spread of Spanish Influenza in Quebec 1918-20” in Epidemic Encounters: Influenza, Society, and Culture in Canada, 1918-20, edited by Magda Fahrni and Esyllt W. Jones. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012.

The authors are quite specific: about the date and other details: “12 professors and 398 students (of 410) fell ill.” Their authority is Elaine Pettigrew, The Silent Enemy: Canada and the Deadly Flu of 1918. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1983. In a popular history, Pettigrew’s account of the event mentions that “2 students came down with the disease, followed alarmingly quickly by 398 more.” No footnotes or linkage to the bibliography offer any way of checking such statements against source, so the numbers and the events they intimate remain puzzling.

In other accounts, nearby St.-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec is one of several Canadian Grounds Zero as some 25,000 Catholics arrived at St.-Jean on September 13 for a multi-day conference; many were from the United States.

On September 12, the Victoria Daily Colonist picked up the story of the alarming spread of the illness in the United States. The three-paragraph article characterized the flu as not life-threatening: “Spanish influenza, although short-lived and with practically no serious results, is a most distressing ailment, which prostrates one for a few days during which he suffers the acme of discomfort.”

Colonist, September 12, 1918, p. 1

On September 24, the Colonist alerted readers of the epidemic’s presence in Canada:

Spanish Influenza at Eastern Points

Quebec, Sept 23.—An epidemic of what is supposed to be Spanish influenza is raging at Victoriaville, Quebec, where the 300 students at the college are reported to be sick. … The college has been quarantined for the past week, the students being gradually sent home after disinfection. So far 2 of the teaching brothers have died, Br. Donat and Br. Pierre. A scholar has also succumbed.

Morgue statistics today show that in past few days 9 sailors have died on ships in the harbour of Quebec apparently from Spanish Influenza. The bodies are shipped to the homes of the men, mostly in the US.

NIAGARA CAMP, Ont., Sept 23.—The fifth death in the Polish infantry camp from influenza occurred this morning and three new cases were admitted to the hospital, making a total of 188 …

Colonist, September 24, 1918, p. 2

By then the “plague” was making its way across the nation. Its westward progress has been mapped with reference to accounts of its arrival in various places.

The flu spread primarily, it was commonly thought, by troops returning from European war fronts — Pettigrew, op. cit., for example, and Janice P. Dickin McGinnis, “The Impact of Epidemic Influenza: Canada, 1918-1919” in Historical Papers  Vol. 12, No. 1, 1977, pp. 120-140.

The assumption was challenged by Mark Osborne Humphries, The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada, p 94, pointing to the actual massive buildup of Canadian forces in Europe during the last three months of the war. There was no wind-down until after November 11.

Humphries, in “The Horror at Home: The Canadian Military and the ‘Great’ Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” J Cdn Hist Ass 16:1, pp 252-4, holds that “the Spanish Flu reached Canada’s Pacific Coast aboard the troop trains of the 260th Battalion from Regina and the Maritimes.”

On September 25 Victoria Medical Health Officer Dr. Arthur Price issued a lengthy statement to the Colonist warning of its approach:

Influenza has been prevalent in Europe during the present year and has more recently crossed the Atlantic and is occurring in Eastern cities in severe epidemics … we must expect the disease to break out in epidemic form in Western cities, and in Victoria before long …

Dr. Price described the early symptoms in some detail:

The onset of the disease is very sudden, the patient may be enjoying his usual health when he is more or less seized with severe frontal headache, and pains in back and limbs with a feeling of cold in the head, soreness of throat, and chills, accompanied by rise of temperature, perhaps a cough and a feeling of weakness.

His prescription was isolation:

When such symptoms occur, the person afflicted should go to bed at once and remain there warm and at rest, and send for the doctor.

… with a warning about the price of neglect:

If there is neglect or postponement of going to bed on account of keeping some appointment or through other cause, the disease may and probably will attack in its worst form.

… and this grim prediction of fatal outcomes:

Heart failure in the aged and pneumonia in both young and old are the most common results of neglect, and are the principal causes of death during influenza epidemic. Influenza has a low mortality rate, but the sequelae of neglected influenza are very fatal.

Dr. Price reiterated his prescription:

The spread of the disease may be checked by using precautions. … [The disease is ] infective from its earliest stage like measles, from the breath and by contact. … caused by numerous very minute germs found in the saliva of persons affected. … To prevent the spread … isolation is necessary from the appearance of the first symptoms …

Before the flu made its appearance a week later, Victoria-area parents were learning the worst. On September 26 nursing aid Dorothy Twist died in an English military hospital. On September 29, Sapper Albert Maclachlan succumbed at the training base in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, where the flu was still raging.