The influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 was one of the greatest disasters in human history, counting numbers dead over the disease’s two-year rampage. Total mortality from the pandemic, it was reported from extensive research in 2002, was “of the order of 50 million,” and even that huge number may have been one-half the real toll. Researchers Johnson and Miller found reasons aplenty for uncertainty. Discrepancies in record-keeping stemmed from confused nomenclature. (In one place or at one time or for one physician, death certificates gave “influenza” as the cause; in other instances, “influenza and pneumonia” were specified, or simply “pneumonia.”) For much of the world’s population there is little or no information or, if there is information, it is of questionable value or is contradictory. Sometimes data was selective by city or demographic; deaths in indigenous populations were rarely considered. The authors concluded that “it would seem unlikely that a truly accurate figure can ever be calculated.”
Updating the Accounts: Global Mortality of the 1918-1920 ‘Spanish’ Influenza Pandemic, by Niall P. A. S. Johnson and Juergen Miller. Bulletin of Historical Medicine 76, 2002, pp. 105–115.
In May 1918, during the first wave of the pandemic, after seven hundred people died in short order in Spain, health authorities followed the international press in taking up the term “Spanish Influenza” to distinguish this strain — virulent, deadly, horrible — from milder forms of influenza.
The use of the term “Spanish Influenza” in this chronicle does not imply that the disease started there (see The Origin, Spread and Character of the Spanish Flu on this site). Clearly, people in Spain resent its continued use. I use the term because it is entrenched in the vernacular as an identifier. No disrespect is intended.
The centenary of the onset of Spanish Flu seems a propitious time to break a local silence. The Great Pandemic happened here too, and it was followed by a Great Forgetting.
Local narrative voices have been heard from time to time. Michael Halleran has given graveyard tours under the auspices of the Old Cemeteries Society. University of Victoria (UVic) student Gary Sarian published an essay, “The 1918 Flu Epidemic in Victoria,” in B.C. Historical News, Fall 1992.
I am an amateur historian with an interest in my home town, Victoria, and its regional setting on Vancouver Island and the Salish Sea.
Geographic and historical orientation, see Victoria in 1918.
More about my work: petergrantwriter.ca.
Local history blog: oakbaychronicles.ca.
The present study began as part of a four-person team project in an undergraduate History course at the University of Victoria in 2014. The product of that effort was a website, Spanish Influenza in Victoria 1918-20. (It is no longer accessible; this website builds on elements of it that I authored.) Professor John Lutz introduced students to the valuable precept of microhistory to seek the universal in the local. In studying the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, the local historian and the genealogist compile local statistics, reconstruct the local historical arc, name hitherto unnamed victims, tell untold stories, and their work intersects with world-historic events so vast they can be only dimly glimpsed.
For me this work is service, for which the pay is in satisfaction — helping to commemorate something important and of continuing pertinence but long overlooked here, as elsewhere.
The site is under construction; anything here is liable to change.
Published October 16, 2016; last edit April 9, 2020.