A cruel irony: Pan­demic strikes

The Glengarry News - - The Opinion Page - By Al­lan J. Mac­Don­ald Glen­garry County Archivist

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.