Wednesday, August 24, 2016

World War Wednesdays: "In-Flu-Enza": The Spanish Flu Epidemic, 1918-19

     I had a little bird,
its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
and in-flu-enza
-Children's skipping rhyme, 1918

     Some fascinating and tragic elements of the First World War are the devastating events that occurred on the home front during that period. After four long years of unprecedented global devastation, the war ended in 1918 with a raging influenza epidemic which was partly spread by soldiers returning home. Ultimately, at least 20 million people around the world succumbed to the disease, including an estimated 50,000 Canadians. 

     Uniquely lethal in its tendency to attack young, healthy bodies, the Spanish Flu was spread through bodily fluids and moved quickly through the population. It manifested itself through fatigue and cough but quickly escalated its attack, creating mucous build-up in the lungs that was impossible to expel. Victims of the disease could be dead within days of contracting the illness.

     The Flu came in three waves: the first in the spring of 1918, the second (and most lethal) in late August, and the third and final during the winter of 1918-1919. Contrary to its name, it did not originate in Spain at all. Wartime censorship meant that combatant armies did not release any information about the flu in an attempt to maintain civilian morale. Since Spain was a neutral party during the war, it had no reason to impose censorship, leaving Spanish newspapers free to report on infected citizens. As a result, Spain was tagged as being the origins of the virus. 

"The 1918 has gone: a year momentous as the termination of the most cruel war in the annals of the human race; a year which marked, the end at least for a time, of man's destruction of man; unfortunately a year in which developed a most fatal infectious disease causing the death of hundreds of thousands of human beings. Medical science for four and one-half years devoted itself to putting men on the firing line and keeping them there. Now it must turn with its whole might to combating the greatest enemy of all--infectious disease," (12/28/1918).

     Canada's flu dead included soldiers who had survived the fighting in Europe only to succumb to the disease upon their return to Canada. In addition, thousands of family members who welcomed them home also perished soon after their arrival. This horrible reality hit close to home in Dunwich Township with the death of returned soldier Harry Bateman Blue of Iona Station in January 1919, He is the only confirmed local soldier who succumbed to the virus according to my database and research this past spring. 
     In addition to the widespread fatalities, the epidemic caused severe social and economic disruption. Children were orphaned, many families found themselves without their chief wage earner, and armies on both sides of the war were temporarily debilitated. Businesses lost profits from both a  lack of demand for their products and a reduced workforce. In an attempt to halt the spread of the disease, municipal governments closed all services except those necessary, and provinces enacted laws regarding quarantine and enforced the wearing of masks in public. Although the Canadian population happily accepted these restrictions, it opposed the federal government's request that victory celebrations be postponed until December 1. 

     Although decreasingly virulent, the Spanish Influenza strain remained active in Canada until the mid-1920s. While crippling in the majority of its immediate effects, the epidemic is credited with leading to the establishment of the federal Department of Health in 1919. In addition, since pneumonia contracted by a patient who was weakened by influenza became a major cause of death, the discovery of penicillin greatly weakened the impact. 

Timeline of the Spread of Flu and Movement of Soldiers:
The Limits of Necessity: Public Health, Dissent, and the War Effort during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic notes the spread of the virus was connected to the movements of soldiers. This piece provides some great insight on the social climate at the time and the ways in which military efforts defined Canadian life. Some interesting quotes and notes follow.
  • “[Carol Byerly] suggests that military physicians and government officials were caught between their obligation to protect the public health and their duty to prosecute the war effort. According to her analysis, health and war became competing interests.” 
  • The first wave of flu broke out in ranks of Canadian Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium in May 1918,  and sickened Canadian soldiers stationed in England a month later 
  • Infected soldiers sailed for Canada on June 26 on the Araguaya, the last Canadian vessel to ferry wounded soldiers back across the Atlantic until the end of September 
  • Arrived at Halifax harbour on July 7, 23% of its soldier-passengers were infected.
  • ”The second and more deadly wave of the flu first appeared among American soldiers at Camp Devens outside of  Boston on 8 Sept. 1918. By the month’s second week, it had already spread across Massachusetts and into New York State.” 
  • 17 September→ broke out among Polish American recruits at a camp outside of Niagara-on-the-Lake
  • 20 September→ soldiers began reporting sick at St. Jean Military Hospital.
  • “In the midst of this crisis, MacPhail requested her father’s permission to sign on for active VAD service. Now a certified VAD nursing assistant, she argued that the city was “crying out for helpers and being young and strong I feel I ought to” despite the fact that the flu showed "no respect for youth.” 
  • “In this era," Nancy Bristow argues, "there was a presumption that women, whatever their nursing qualifications, would put themselves in harm’s way to fulfill their natural caring role. Certainly, many women came forward to nurse influenza victims, despite the risk to themselves.” 
     Many thanks to the Canadian War Museum, The Canadian Encyclopedia, and the University of Waterloo's Department of Drama page, "Contagion, Pandemics, and Humanity" for the information and images used in this post. 
     Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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