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In 1918, the Spanish Flu broke out and became one of the deadliest pandemics the world has ever seen. It killed tens of millions and infected roughly a third of the world population. It spread rapidly in the cramped and unhygienic conditions that soldiers lived in during the First World War, which was ongoing at the same time that the Flu broke out. Today, we will revisit the extraordinary measures taken in Kingston to deal with returning soldiers and the Spanish Flu – specifically, the conversion of ordinary buildings into emergency hospitals.
For the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario, the danger of hospitals becoming overwhelmed by COVID cases and being unable to perform any but the most critically urgent surgeries and treatments remained a near-constant threat. This possibility was never closer to being realised than during the third wave of the pandemic. During this period, roughly the spring of 2021, Kingston’s hospital network, Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC), had to supply medical care to over 60 people from outside the southeastern Ontario region that it normally services. KHSC even decided to open a separate 70-bed facility at the former grounds of St. Mary’s of the Lake Hospital to ensure enough room for incoming COVID patients.
While these events may seem unprecedented to most of us, if we look back a little farther beyond our lifetimes, we discover that that isn’t exactly the case. The end of the First World War and the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 caused another public health crisis that Kingston’s hospitals needed extra space to deal with.
Kingston was especially hard-hit by these events compared to other towns. Even during a pandemic just over a hundred years ago, Kingston served the same role of regional health care centre as it did during the COVID pandemic. As the largest city between Ottawa and Toronto, Kingston’s healthcare facilities have always serviced a particularly large surrounding area. On top of this, Andrew Belyea, a previous Margaret Angus Research Fellow for the Museum, notes that Kingston was a military hub around the time of the First World War, with a very large number of soldiers stationed in or otherwise filtered through town (find his article here). This created a larger-than-expected need for hospital care when the war ended and soldiers began returning to Canada – a need that would be difficult to meet.
So, with Kingston requiring extra space for the onrush of military veterans who suffered from a myriad of health issues, as well as to deal with the devastating Spanish Flu plague that broke out during the last months of the war, a few notable buildings were transformed into places of health care for soldiers, their families, and the rest of the public.
The first of these buildings stands in the heart of downtown Kingston at Princess Street and King Street. In the building currently occupied by the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), there was an emergency military hospital run by the Great War Veterans’ Association, a forerunner to today’s Royal Canadian Legion. This hospital cared for the women and children of 22 families during one of the worst months of the Spanish Flu epidemic, treating 57 patients overall in that time.
Slightly farther away from the centre of downtown and into Alwington district is the famous Morton’s brewery site. The brewery buildings currently serve as the Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning and the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, but in 1918 the site began hosting two military hospitals for several years. Ongwanada Hospital (meaning “our home” in Ojibwe) occupied Mortonwood, brewer James Morton’s mansion, while Sydenham Military Hospital was located in the brewery building now occupied by the Tett Centre.
Queen’s University Campus
Finally, on Queen’s University campus, Kingston Hall and Grant Hall were also turned into military hospitals after fairly extensive renovations, resulting in 600 total beds between the two buildings! The rest of Queen’s involvement in the First World War is a story for another time – so too is the rest of the citizens of Kingston’s involvement.
These locations were deeply meaningful to so many. They were places in which people recovered mentally and physically from horrific experiences; where others said goodbye to their loved ones as they perished in bed; and where doctors, nurses, and volunteers spent late nights desperately trying to save the lives of those around them with no regard for their own safety or comfort. Yet we walk past these locations every day and we likely never stop to notice them. We might think of them as interesting architecture at best, simply because we don’t know their stories. Kingston is a town with an incredibly rich history, and we should cherish our ability to (for just one example) stand in the same doorways as those who came long before us. It allows us to momentarily transcend the limits of our individual experience, viscerally connecting us to the sensations and experiences of people who we will never meet; people who inhabited what seems to us now to be a completely different world when they stood in that same spot and saw those same sights.
Another building that became co-opted for the treatment of soldiers at the end of World War I was the Mowat Sanitorium. However, we already dedicated a blog post to telling its whole story, which you can read here https://museumofhealthcare.blog/sir-oliver-mowat-memorial-sanatorium/.
For more on the Spanish flu in Kingston, see MARF Andrew Belyea’s previous blog posts and final research paper https://issuu.com/museumofhealthcare/docs/andrew_belyea_2017. As well, keep your eyes peeled for upcoming exhibits from our friends at the 1000 Islands Museum in Gananoque on the Spanish Flu this year and next!