The Reality of the Flu: Kingston’s United Effort Against 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 third 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.

While the Spanish Influenza continued to spread throughout the city of Kingston in early October 1918, people began to develop a more significant appreciation for its detrimental consequences. Work days were being lost, loved ones were falling ill, and there was a growing sense within the community that a united, policy-based effort was needed. Although other towns had taken unified precautions, Kingston had yet to coordinate its collective fight against the Flu. Renfrew, for instance, closed its schools on October 4, 1918, while the shell factory and several other industrial plants in the city were also shut down. By this time, there had already been five reported deaths due to influenza in Renfrew.

On October 10, 1918, the frustration felt by Kingston’s citizens about the lack of a medical response effort was tangible. As one individual wrote, “Scores of citizens are not in accord and want something done. It is difficult for the layman to get rid of the old idea that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” (The Daily Standard, October 10, 1918:1). Evidence of the Flu’s impact on the workplace was profound, with The Daily British Whig and the Bell Telephone Company being particularly strained due to lack of staff. With more than one-third of their staff ill, The Daily British Whig was having trouble completing their delivery routes because many of the route runners acquired the Flu. Additionally, two compositors at the paper were ill, resulting in advertisements running several days in a row without changeover. Meanwhile, Bell Telephone was also short-staffed with one-third of their employees off work; with the few remaining staff members being overworked, a request went out to the public asking that only emergency phone calls be made until staff recovered. Despite this plea, calls into the switchboard only increased during the epidemic. The Kingston, Portsmouth & Cataraqui Street Railway also had ten employees fall ill with influenza, four of whom were conductors. This resulted in a shift in train schedules to a less frequent 20-minute schedule.

With the worsening epidemic, the Medical Society, Board of Health, Mayor Hughes, and the Medical Health Officer, Dr. A.R.B. Williamson, determined on October 16, 1918 that all schools and public places were to be shut down. The following notice written by Dr. Williamson was released in the local newspapers stating the extent of the closures:

public notice
The public notice indicating that all public places were to be shut down until further notice.  (Source: Daily British Whig. October 16,1918:6)

The two-week period following October 16, 1918 remains the only time that Queen’s University has been closed for a medical reason. During this time, many of the students went home to care for loved ones and escape the close quarters that Queen’s housing entailed. Nursing students were compelled to stay and help the overwhelmed local and nearby hospitals. Although enrolled in a five-year medical program at the time, fourth-year medical students were granted accelerated graduation to help with both the influenza epidemic and the return of thousands of soldiers following WWI.

This call for volunteers was distributed throughout local newspapers in Ontario.  (Source: Daily British Whig. October 16, 1918:11)

The story of the Spanish Influenza in Kingston appears to take a turn at this juncture in time. Although the decision to close public places was a slow one, the enforcement of restrictions brought about a dramatic and positive response. In a surprisingly coordinated effort, the Provincial Board of Health initiated the Ontario Emergency Volunteer Health Auxiliary (OEVHA). The OEVHA held lectures in cities throughout the province to train volunteer women as emergency nurses. Those who passed the short course were given a uniform with the badge “ONTARIO S.O.S.” (Sisters of Service). A committee of thirteen women, along with Mayor Hughes and W.F. Nickle, was formed in Kingston with headquarters at St. John’s Ambulance while offices were set up in the Salvation Army Hostel.

As noted in the Kingston Minutes of City Council for the year 1918, Captain E.C.A. Crawford of the Queen’s Military Hospital gave lectures on influenza in the Medical Building (modern-day Kathleen Ryan Hall, home of the Queen’s Archives). This hospital was initially established in Grant Hall to divert the large number of returning soldiers away from Kingston General Hospital, but it soon became home for Spanish Influenza patients as well. In total, 156 women volunteered for the Sisters of Service over 18 days from October 16 to November 3, 1918, with 1255 home visits being made to 200 families, seeing a total of 600 patients.

An Emergency Hospital was also established at the Great War Veterans Association in Kingston on October 19, 1918, which housed women and their children suffering from the Spanish Influenza. Twenty-two families were admitted with a total of fifty-seven patients, two of whom were children that died. The Army and Navy Veterans opened their homes for ill men to stay, while they also prepared and delivered soup throughout the community. The Daughters of the Empire provided meals for nurses on night duty, while S.S. Corbett’s ambulance operated free of charge for those suffering from the Flu.

In our next blog we will be introduced to Dr. Guilford B. Reed. As a notorious Queen’s Bacteriology professor, Dr. Reed is famous for his secret biological warfare research during WWII. In addition to this, he also tried to develop a vaccine during the Spanish Influenza epidemic. Was his vaccine successful? Stay tuned to find out!

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.

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