The plague approaches

The “second wave” of virulent, deadly Spanish Influenza reached North America on steamships from European ports that docked in New York City on August 13, 15 and 16, 1918. Prompt action by local authorities contained the outbreaks, and the disease was believed not to have spread into the city.

The New York Times, August  14-20, 1918 (numerous stories).

Lithographed postcard in my collection.

But on August 27, three sailors on the U.S. Navy receiving ship at Boston’s Commonwealth Pier made the sick list with influenza. Cases multiplied in succeeding days. The disease quickly spread through naval ships and facilities on the Eastern seaboard.

Report of the Surgeon General [of the United States Navy]. Annual Reports of the Navy Department for the Fiscal Year 1919 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1920), retrieved from HathiTrust Digital Library, pp. 2427-29. The same report, on p. 2329, claimed the Boston outbreak started with two sailors.

On September 10, “a draft of several hundred men left the naval yard, Philadelphia, for Quebec … and six cases of influenza developed among them upon arrival at Quebec, September 11.”

 Ibid., p. 2428.  

The first indications of Spanish Flu in a non-military community in Canada accompanied an influx of 25,000-40,000 Catholics, many from the United States, to a Eucharistic Congress September 12-15 in Victoriaville, Quebec, where an outbreak at the Collège commercial des Frères du Sacré-Coeur soon caught the attention of the nation’s press.

Grippe espagnole: Commémoration du centenaire de la pandémie 1918-2018. Victoriaville Santé Urbaine. Text: Monique T. Giroux.

Elaine Pettigrew, in The Silent Enemy, put September 8 for the arrival of the disease in Victoriaville. That account states, without sourcing, that “2 students [at the Collège du Sacré-Coeur] came down with the disease, followed alarmingly quickly by 398 more.”* Another study specified that “12 professors and 398 students (of 410) fell ill.”** Both texts evidently draw on common source material. The early date suggests a vector of infection different from the eucharistic conference.

* The Silent Enemy: Canada and the Deadly Flu of 1918 by Elaine Pettigrew (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1983), p. 8.

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

In five days between September 18 and 22, the Collège du Sacré-Coeur lost three Brothers and six students to influenza. On September 23, the Bureau d’hygiène de Montréal closed the school and imposed a quarantine on the sickest students.

 Grippe espagnole: Commémoration du centenaire de la pandémie 1918-2018.

Meanwhile, 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 to 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, according to conventional wisdom, by troops returning from European war fronts.(1) The assumption was challenged by Humphries, pointing to the actual massive buildup of Canadian forces in Europe during the last three months of the war.(2) There was no wind-down until after November. Humphries holds that “the Spanish Flu reached Canada’s Pacific Coast aboard the troop trains of the 260th Battalion from Regina and the Maritimes.”(3)

(1) The Impact of Epidemic Influenza: Canada, 1918-1919 by Janice P. Dickin McGinnis, in Historical Papers  Vol. 12, No. 1, 1977 (Fredericton, NB: Canadian Historical Association), pp. 123-24. ¶  (2) The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada by Humphries (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), p 94. ¶ (3) The Horror at Home: The Canadian Military and the ‘Great’ Influenza Pandemic of 1918, by Mark Osborne Humphries, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, 16:1, 2005, pp. 252-4.

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.

Published October 14, 2016; latest edit March 25, 2020.