A cruel irony: Pandemic strikes
1918. The Great War was entering its final phase. The determined German Spring Offensive on the Western Front, having failed to achieve a knock-out blow, left the German army exhausted and spent.
In August, the Allies mounted an offensive and by the following month, the German army was in full retreat after a series of Allied victories. At last there was reason to believe the Allies would ultimately prevail and that the troops would finally come home.
In the midst of growing optimism on the home front, a global pandemic struck. It was on a scale not seen since the plagues of the Middle Ages. The Spanish flu, a devastating and previously unknown form of influenza, would over a few months claim the lives of up to 100 million people world-wide. (Note: A century later it is still not known where the Spanish flu originated but the first reported official cases came from Spain.) The disease was unique in that most of the victims were not the elderly and the infirm, but those in the prime of their lives, between 20 and 45, the same demographic already decimated by war.
Victims would die within a day of contracting the disease
The flu was spread through bodily fluids and presented itself through fatigue and cough, but quickly attacked the body, creating mucous buildup that could not be expelled. Victims of the flu could be dead within a day of contracting the illness.
As Rhodes Grant of Martintown recalled, “You woke in the morning with a sniffle, at noon you had a sore throat. At dusk you fell into bed if you were lucky enough to be near a bed. Some people died where they fell. After you got to bed, if you got to bed, the next step was pneumonia. Some escaped it, not many.”
In early September the disease arrived at Canada's eastern port cities and was spread in part by infected soldiers returning from overseas. Within a few short weeks, up to 50,000 Canadians would perish, almost as many as those who fell in the war. A staggering statistic.
A life-saving vaccine or antiviral drug was not available in 1918 and so doctors were at a loss as to what to do. The use of surgical masks was
strongly recommended. Quarantine measures were implemented. The public was advised to “eat moderately, take plenty of outdoor exercise, sleep with windows open, drink lots of good water, and do not get excited about newspaper reports.” Nothing worked.
The pandemic gave rise to quack remedies. Local newspaper ads proclaimed the healing powers of everything from the Branston violet ray ozone generator, which kept “your nasal passages, throat and lungs in a perfect antiseptic condition,” to “Fruit-a-tives,” a body builder, strength-maker and blood purifier.
A Cornwall dry cleaner swore that his sanitary steam method of pressing clothes sterilized and offered protection from the flu. The Williamstown correspondent reported on the advice of a Dr. Frederick Knoff, that “a yeast cake a day will keep the influenza away.” Egg water, a mixture of cold water and egg whites flavoured with salt or cinnamon, was also offered as a remedy.
The disease came to Glengarry late in September. Initially it was downplayed. The Glengarry News took the position: “There is little cause for alarm and were it not for the undue publicity given it at present little notice would be taken of it.” The press in general was exercising self-censorship, perhaps because the war was still on and nothing should detract from the long sought goal of victory. By mid-October the municipal authorities were forced to take stronger measures. The Alexandria Board of Health ordered the closing of all schools, moving picture and concert halls, and pool rooms until further notice. One October issue of The
News published nine obituaries. Another listed 17 death notices. Most were from the flu. Within a six-week period, 21 died of the influenza, about one per cent of the town's population.
Dr. J.T. Hope, Alexandria's Medical Officer of Health, would later report that about 60 per cent of the town's people were affected. Across the county, in the absence of official figures, it is estimated that about 80 people succumbed. Sadie MacLaurin, of Dalkeith, attending university in Toronto, recounted that in her boarding house every day “the door of my room would open a crack and a hand would come round the door and place a bowl of soup or half a grapefruit on my dresser.”
On the back concessions few families were left untouched by the disease. On the 4th of Kenyon, the Kennedy family of Lot 3 lost twin boys within a week, one of whom had a promising future in cattle judging, and their neighbours, the McKinnons, lost a son of 25. Difficult to comprehend is the tragedy that befell the McCuaig family of Skye; three of the children were gone within just 48 hours.
By the second week of November the Spanish flu suddenly and inexplicably had run its course and most controls were then lifted.
Ironically, Glengarry's schools were scheduled to re-open on the 11th.
On that second Monday of November when the news reached Canadians that the war was over, the federal government’s request that victory celebrations be postponed until December 1 was ig- nored by almost everyone.
A tragedy overseas. A tragedy at home.
Canadians had come through. It was time to celebrate.