Lessons of the 1918 flu pandemic

In the dying days of the First World War a second cataclysm struck: the Spanish flu. The 1918 influenza pandemic sapped armies, spread panic throughout the civilian population and racked up a death toll of approximately 100 million.

A century later, it remains one of the deadliest disease outbreaks on record.

Credit: University of Waterloo

In August of 1918, a virulent strain of the virus crossed the Atlantic and started spreading across Canada. It hit Paris on Sept. 27, according to the Star-Transcript. Large numbers of townsfolk experienced chills, aches and pain in the back and limbs, a severe sore throat, fits of sneezing, a flushed face and temperatures between 101 and 104 degrees.

“The passing of Louise Marie Snell came as a shock to many who were not aware of her severe illness,” the newspaper reported. “The entire family had been down with the influenza but were convalescing nicely. Mrs. Snell, however, took a relapse on Thursday and pneumonia developed. She passed peacefully away at the age of 32.”

That was often the way it happened. An influenza attack typically lasted from two to five days. It left victims so miserable they scarcely cared whether they lived or died. If they pulled through, they remained weak, tired and susceptible to complications for weeks. Many came down with pneumonia, acute bronchitis and severe asthma. It was these opportunistic illnesses — not the flu itself — that took their lives.

Advertisement: Toronto Globe 1918

As reports of disease multiplied, panic set in, driving people to quacks with all manner of contraptions and cures.

On Oct. 16, Paris town council ordered the closing of schools, churches, dance halls, moving picture shows, pool rooms and concert halls, in an effort to halt the spread of the outbreak. A week later, it authorized a 30-bed emergency hospital in the armoury, staffed by volunteer nurses and orderlies.

One of the saddest stories of that time was the death of Dr. Alpheus Lovett, a well-liked physician who worked tirelessly to save lives during the outbreak. On Oct. 18, he succumbed.

He was 45 years old with a wife and four young children. According to the Star-Transcript: “Day and night during the whole illness citizens were constantly inquiring about the doctor’s condition. It was felt by everyone that a life so energetic and useful, so devoted to the community and so needed at a time like this must recover. But a gloom came over the community when the news of his death was known.”

By November, the epidemic had begun to taper off. On Armistice Day, relieved Parisians ventured out of their homes at 11 am to celebrate the end of the World War and the abatement of the disease. In the evening, there was dancing on the street, followed by a torchlight procession and fireworks.

Forty-one townspeople died in the pandemic, 10 of them young children. Approximately 1500 Parisians were infected. The province-wide death toll was 8,705.

What makes this relevant today — besides the fact that 2018 is the centenary of the pandemic — is how few lessons we have learned.

Centers for Disease Control

Today we have antibiotics that would have cut the death toll in 1918. But two-thirds of us don’t get a flu shot.

No one can predict when a strain of the flu as lethal and highly contagious as the 1918 variant on the H1N1 virus will return. But instead of preparing, global leaders are impeding our chances of finding an effective remedy by erecting trade barriers and slapping tariffs on a growing list of items. Caught in the escalating trade war between the U.S. and China is the latest Chinese flu vaccine research.

The precautions our medical authorities prescribe are much the same as those recommended by their counterparts a century ago. Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze; wash your hands regularly; stay home from work and school if you have a fever or flu symptoms. Yet many of us still don’t. We’re too busy, too preoccupied with other priorities, too willing to take our chances.

May we be luckier than our forebears.

by Carol Goar

Sources: At the Forks of the Grand, Volume II by D.A Smith, PMHS files, Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, TVO, Statistics Canada

Our turn to carry the torch

Bells peeled and sirens pierced the air at dawn on Nov. 11, 1918. Parisians rushed out of their homes cheering, shouting and waving torches. “The war to end all wars” was finally over.

Neighbours hugged each other with joy and relief. It was a noisy, happy chaotic celebration.

The 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended WWI was more subdued.

Close to a thousand citizens gathered at the Paris Cenotaph to honour those killed in war.

They acknowledged the horrendous cost of war: lives cut short, families shattered, communities stripped of their young talent. They imagined the massacres at Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge and Ypres. They renewed their pledge never to forget the sacrifice of a generation that fought so bravely.

Ninety-four soldiers and one nursing sister from Paris were killed between 1914 and 1918 or succumbed to their injuries in the months afterward. For a town of just 4,200, it was a devastating blow.

This year’s Remembrance Day ceremony held special significance — partly because it marked the centenary of the Armistice that ended WWI; but also because two new stones had been erected at the cenotaph correctly identifying every individual lost in WWI and WWII.

These pristine stones, a year and a half in the making, had been dedicated just two weeks earlier. They stood like sentinels against the grey sky as the crowd gathered to mark Remembrance Day. Over the course of the morning, their appearance was softened by dozens of wreaths; laid by descendants of the fallen, schoolchildren, police officers, firefighters, politicians, Girl Guides, Boy Scouts, and representatives of local churches, service clubs and charitable organizations.

Marie Williamson, accompanied by Carol Goar, laid a wreath on behalf of the Paris Museum and Historical Society.

“They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old,” said Reverend Canon Mario Hryniewicz at the ceremony. “Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

The crowd repeated the familiar words: “We will remember them.”

The Ayr-Paris Band played hymns of remembrance. The Paris-Port Dover Pipe Band added the skirl of bagpipes.

As a lasting reminder, members of Branch 29 of the Royal Canadian Legion gave everyone a bookmark inscribed with John McCrae’s poignant Word War I poem, In Flanders Fields.

After the benediction, families walked home together or warmed up in local restaurants and coffee shops. A few lingered to get a close look at the monument with its two new stones.

Similar ceremonies were held across the country, uniting Canadians in a moment of gratitude and remembrance.

The Paris Museum presented a slideshow of portraits of those paid the ultimate price. The pictures are part of its Fred Bemrose collection. Bemrose, a founder and early curator of the museum, spent years diligently collecting photos of everyone who served.

At 5 pm, church bells tolled across Paris in a final tribute to the soldiers, sailors, nurses, airmen who made the supreme sacrifice.

– by Carol Goar

Learning about history

On November 7th the museum was enlivened by members of the 5th Sparks and Brownies, Brantford Unit. During their visit they learned about local history and why it is important to preserve it.

Christmas at the Museum

One of our volunteers, Anne Vernon is preparing the Museum Gift Shop for Christmas at the Museum.

The museum will be open for Christmas shopping on the following dates:

  • November 9th from 6 pm to 9 pm
  • November 10th from 9:30 am to 5 pm
  • November 11th from 9:30 am to 4 pm