Kingston’s Initial Response to the Spanish Influenza

The following blog post was contributed by Andrew Belyea, who is the Museum of Health Care’s 2017 Margaret Angus Research Fellow. Andrew has a degree in Life Science from Queen’s University and will start at the Queen’s School of Medicine in the Fall.  This is Andrew’s second blog post in a series he will be writing throughout the summer. Special thanks to Trustees of the Estate of Larry Gibson, Graeme Fraser & Jay Rayner, for their generous support of this fellowship.

Oct.4.1918As news of the Spanish Influenza reached Kingston in September 1918, an interesting story began to develop. Residents would certainly have been aware of the Flu before the first case arrived in the city, as it was initially documented in the region on September 8, 1918, when a Flu breakout was reported in Victoriaville, Quebec. Slowly but surely, more cases became known and by October 1, 1918, 600 confirmed cases were announced in Sherbrooke, Quebec. As a reactionary measure, the Protestant schools in the city closed for the day. With the epidemic still in its infancy, those south of the border took action. Near the time of the announcement in Sherbrooke, the American government allocated one million dollars (equivalent to $19.9 million Canadian dollars today) to fight the epidemic. Meanwhile, a local Kingston paper naively reported, “It is fortunate that in Canada [the Flu] is comparatively unknown” (Daily British Whig, 1 October 1918:2). Clearly the author of that article was not from Sherbrooke…

Today, it is easy to look back on the surprising ignorance of Kingston’s health officials in October 1918. With hindsight, it is clear that a slow local response contributed to the pervasiveness of the epidemic in Kingston. However, it is important that we remind ourselves of the medical challenges that citizens of the day faced: home remedies were widely used (with varying efficacy), over-worked physicians had fewer scientific tools at their disposal, and a myriad of other diseases were constantly looming. Scarlet Fever, Diphtheria, and infections were present in people’s minds at the time, with even more concern surrounding Typhoid fever. As noted in the Daily British Whig, “Typhoid has been much more prevalent than ‘flu’, and it is not felt by those competent to know that there should be any apprehension as to the alleged prevalence of the ailment” (Daily British Whig, 1 October 1918). It is therefore understandable that the Kingston community was not quick to take action against the Flu – after all, it began slowly just like all other Flu seasons.

As is often the case, different stakeholders held varying perspectives on how to handle the situation of the Spanish Influenza. During a meeting of the Ontario Provincial Board of Health in early October, discussion surrounded the idea of closing public places; this idea was promptly shut down since it was deemed that children are more likely to transmit the flu when out of school as compared to being in school. The thought behind this was that children not in school are often unsupervised, leaving them free to run around the streets coughing and sneezing on everyone they see. We tend to have the opposite reaction today: if there is a particularly bad infectious agent (anyone remember SARS? Swine flu?), children are usually encouraged to stay home rather than attend school. A spokesman from the Provincial Board of Health concluded people should “not be moved from their duty by public clamor to adopt fussy and ill-advised measures which only serve to irritate the public and accomplish no useful purpose” (Daily British Whig, 10 October 1918). Therefore, schools remained open.

Kingston’s ‘wait and see’ approach ultimately led to a more dire local situation. By the first Friday in October, Kingston’s physicians began hastily acknowledging that cases were creeping into the city. Without an organized local response, Kingston nurses were being called to help in other cities. The town of Renfrew had requested for Kingston nurses to help the 400 cases that hit the town in the first week of October. Additionally, nurses were being filtered to the United States where the epidemic struck a few days earlier. This depletion compounded the issues that soon hit Kingston as local residents had fewer nurses to care for them.

A common advertisement at the time for Catarrh, a condition associated with excessive build up of mucus in the nose and throat. While marketed for colds, it was used for primary treatment of the Flu as well.

As the realization sunk in that Kingston was in the thick of the epidemic, the local Medical Health Officer, Dr. A.R.B. Williamson, sent out a memo in the local papers recommending next steps: “To Prevent Influenza: Keep the mouth shut. Avoid indigestion and hunger. Be cheerful but avoid crowds and public places. Get a good nights rest and don’t get over fatigued. Walk to and from work and be in the open as much as possible. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit. Have windows open at work and at home. Smoke very little, as this lowers nerve power and resistance of the nose, throat and mouth to infection. Infections come in through nose, mouth and eyes, therefore disinfect these 2 or 3 times daily, the nose with boric ointment, the mouth with an antiseptic wash, and bathe the eyes with boric lotion. On first symptom go to bed immediately and do not attempt to fight it off” (Daily British Whig, 10 October 1918:2). My favourite part of these recommendations is to “be cheerful”; that always helps rid oneself of the flu, doesn’t it?

As one might gather, Kingston certainly didn’t jump the gun when responding to the Spanish Influenza. However, it is understandable that local authorities were cautious to disturb people’s routines because they wanted to prevent any major disturbance to everyday life. The (overly) careful approach did not last much longer, as local health officials deemed it necessary to close all public places by the middle of October. Stay tuned as we investigate the closure of Kingston’s schools and public gathering places, a decision that turned out to be wise albeit upsetting for the public.

Those interested in further reading should visit Stauffer Library at Queen’s University, which has Daily British Whig microfilms from October 1918 that are fascinating to read.

Source of images: Daily British Whig, 4 October 1918.

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