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Moose Jaw hospitals overwhelmed during 1918 Spanish Flu

A look back at the 1918 influenza epidemic

The Spanish Flu arrived in Canada in 1918, and after its two-year rampage, left 55,000 people — including hundreds of Moose Javians — dead out a population of about eight million.

With no vaccine or effective treatment, this devastating pandemic affected every inhabited region in the world. It started in Eastern Europe and then crossed the battlefields of the First World War, following soldiers returning home.

The epidemic spread like wildfire and came in multiple waves. The first wave occurred in the spring of 1918, and then again that fall, when a mutation produced an extremely contagious, virulent, and deadly form of the disease. This second wave caused 90 per cent of the deaths during the pandemic. Subsequent waves took place in the springs of 1919 and 1920.

The deaths claimed between 2.5 per cent and five per cent of the global population, or about 50 million people. Most victims were between ages 20 and 40, although seniors were also affected.

Saskatchewan affected

In Saskatchewan, the height of the epidemic was in November 1918 when 300 people died. The death rate declined into 1919 but increased to 50 deaths in February 1920 before tailing off for good.

There were 159 deaths in Moose Jaw from Oct. 1 to Nov. 30 during the height of influenza in the community. The flu began with a sudden onset of chills, a headache, sore throat and high temperature. It reached its peak in two to three days, followed by a rapid recovery. However, relapses were common and the bronchial pneumonia that followed was the real killer.

First Moose Jaw deaths

Harry Land, a young Lancashire immigrant, died on Oct. 7, 1918 and is said to have been the community’s first flu victim, according to a column by the late Leith Knight. A report in the Moose Jaw Daily Herald from Oct. 15, 1918, however, indicated the first Spanish Flu death might have been Robert John Brown.

“Asked this morning if he intended to take any action in the way of closing up the public places, Medical Officer of Health (Dr.) Turnbull stated that such was not his intention at present,” the newspaper article said on Oct. 15. “If such should prove necessary there is every probability that the moving picture places would be the first to be closed down for a time, but the spread of the disease does not yet warrant such action being taken.”

On Oct. 16, the provincial government announced new regulations for the closing of public places. The regulations indicated all cases must be reported to the local medical health officer; any place of amusement or entertainment could be closed for however long the health board saw fit; and anyone who disobeyed could be fined up to $50 — a hefty sum back then.

Public spaces closed

An Oct. 17 Daily Herald headline said, “There is no cause for alarm — nothing serious in condition of any cases — health authorities active — people are taking care of themselves.” However, city council decided to close all public places including churches, schools, theatres, bowling alleys, pool halls and dance halls, while it banned public meetings with more than 10 people.

Even though 75 cases were recorded a day later, the epidemic was still not considered a threat since there had been no deaths, the newspaper reported. However, by Oct. 19 the situation had become “fearful,” Knight wrote. With both hospitals at capacity, temporary hospitals were set up in the Moose Hotel, now Cecelia Court on South Hill, and in Prince Arthur School.

Sixty-two cases were recorded on Oct. 23 to bring the total to 222 infected residents, the newspaper said. Dr. Turnbull indicated the epidemic was becoming serious. He was also worried there were many unreported cases in private homes.

He later pleaded for volunteers to care for the sick and dying. Police searched for gravediggers to help bury the dead, which were in temporary storage in the Moose Jaw Cemetery vault.

As the deaths increased, a citizens’ health commission was organized, Knight wrote. The group made pneumonia jackets and gauze masks, which were soaked with eucalyptus oil. A group of volunteers was organized to visit every affected household.

On Oct. 24, the Daily Herald reported that the municipality wanted residents to take in healthy children whose parents were affected. The town would also establish a children’s home that would be volunteer-run.

Deaths pile up

Stricken households were asked to switch on their porch lights to indicate their status.

“One of the most appalling cases was reported from Buffalo Pound, where a family of 16 were all stricken,” wrote Knight. “Two had died, four were on the verge of death and the others were too ill to get up.”

The Daily Herald reported on Oct. 24 that 11 residents died of influenza in 24 hours. While a new rule was only doctors could report flu cases, not enough could be found so the number of new cases was unknown. Total deaths at this point were 28.

Mrs. Harry Mead, wife of the proprietor of the Royal George Hotel, died of pneumonia after having the flu for one week. Others who also died include Morris Bacon, 25; William Steele, both 49; Charles Switzer, 19; George Eric Dell, 3; and Adam Gabel, 2.

Neighbourhood support

Community churches turned their basements into soup kitchens to support home-bound residents. Most church women’s groups made gallons of soup, sandwiches, scalloped potatoes, custards, rice and tapioca puddings, eggnogs, oatmeal gruel and tea biscuits. Others made simmered beef bones.

Dr. Turnbull informed residents on Oct. 25 that they should wear masks for preventative measures. The masks couldn’t be worn for more than two hours and had to be boiled to be sterilized, the Daily Herald reported. Meanwhile, 11 deaths in 24 hours brought the total to 39.

The influenza peaked in Moose Jaw at the end of October. There were 22 deaths from Oct. 26 and 27, while another 17 died on Oct. 28. Dr. Turnbull kept all theatres and schools closed, but churches were allowed to open for public worship.

The disease began to abate when November arrived. On Nov. 16, Dr. Turnbull reported there had been a 50-per-cent decline in deaths, with only one reported in 24 hours.

The Daily Herald reported on Dec. 26 that the influenza had exited the epidemic stage, while a day later Dr. Turnbull said the epidemic was practically over.