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Echoes of the Spanish Flu

Sepia tone image of boy standing in front of a theatre entrance. He wears a mask. A sign posted on the box office reads - All theatres CLOSED until further notice. At request of Mayor

We investigate Toronto’s response to the Spanish Flu through news articles of the day, and compare the experience to our current struggle against COVID-19.

This article is part of a new series, Heritage at Home (April to June 2020). We’ll share poignant stories that provide historical context to some of our current challenges, and also playful tales meant to entertain and chase away any confinement blues (at least temporarily).

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By Kristen McLaughlin, May 19, 2020


Spanish Flu Comes to Toronto


We are glued to various screens for COVID-19 news updates on peaks or flattening curves.

With the technology we have today to track disease-related numbers, it can both comfort and scare us. Was this kind of time-sensitive information conveyed to the general public in the past?

Another global pandemic that COVID-19 is often compared to is the Spanish Flu, an influenza epidemic that lasted from January 1918 until December 1920. It infected approximately 500 million people, about one third of the world’s population at the time.  Causing dangerous respiratory distress, the Spanish Flu affected primarily those between the ages of 20 to 40; it is estimated to have killed anywhere between 17 million to 100 million people.

In Canada, which then had a population of 8 million, as many as 50,000 people died. In Ontario, there were 300,000 recorded cases and 8,705 deaths.

These figures, much like today, don’t tell the entire story. Medical systems were overwhelmed, and fatalities may have gone unreported or misreported as something else.


Articles during the early stages of the Spanish Flu’s second wave, the Globe, October to December, 1918.
We can more easily trace the Spanish Flu's story than those of earlier pandemics.

In 1918, newspapers and bulletins circulated updates on death tolls, restrictions, closures, and more. We decided to investigate and read through the archives of old Globe and Mail articles to find what similarities and differences may exist to today’s experience, around the same point in the disease trajectory—the end of the first wave and potential beginning of a second wave.


The News of the Flu



Medical personnel battling the 1919 Spanish Flu. Courtesy of the St. James Cathedral Archives

Similarities: Closures and Social Distancing


Closure notices and early forms of social distancing did not occur until halfway through the second wave of the Spanish Flu.

By October 16, 1918, boards of health across the province ordered all public places, including churches and schools, closed. After October 19, all theatres and other gathering places such as pool rooms and bowling alleys were closed throughout Toronto. Still, streetcars were kept open, as well as most shops, which some doctors viewed as counterproductive. Chief Medical Officer, Charles Hastings, warned that Toronto would see tens of thousands of cases and that it was up to residents to help stop the spread. Sound familiar?

There were newspaper articles dedicated to thanking volunteers and staff working to combat the flu, much like today’s many ads, social media posts, and billboards.

 

“

Dr. Horace J. Brittain of the Toronto General Hospital has sent out a letter of appreciation to the volunteer workers who rendered such invaluable service to the hospital and the community during the worst period of the influenza epidemic. Miss Gunn, the Lady Superintendent, declares that this voluntary assistance saved the situation at the most critical period.

”

Article in the Globe
November 15, 1918


Articles on symptoms and dangers of the Spanish Flu to essential workers, the Globe, September to November, 1918.
The symptoms of the Spanish Flu are eerily similar to what we hear on the news these days.

COVID-19 has its own challenging symptoms that are worse in some than in others. But in 1918/1919, articles that described the symptoms of the Spanish Flu also note cough, fever, and difficulty breathing which led to pneumonia and kidney difficulties.

There was also a familiar debate over essential workers and the dangers of their job, often resulting in illness or death. Nurses, railway workers, construction workers, and others were at a constant risk of catching the flu. The Bloor Viaduct project in Toronto continued its construction throughout the epidemic, with its unveiling event being called short because, as Toronto’s then-mayor, Thomas Langton Church, said in stopping a speaker, “We will not have any more speakers for, if we keep you any longer, we will be violating the Medical Officer’s regulations as to gatherings of people.”


Similarities: Symptoms and Dangers



Ads for remedies, the Globe during the Spanish Flu, October to December, 1918.

Differences: Remedies


Injecting disinfectant as a COVID-19 treatment? This uninformed suggestion provoked an immediate pushback from the scientific and medical communities.

When it comes to today’s news, we—mostly—don’t see ads or promotions for unrealistic and sometimes bizarre treatments.

In 1918 though, these kinds of promotions were given ad space in the biggest newspapers of the day. Some suggested remedies included somehow breathing in violet rays, menthol bags, gin pills for kidney issues that arose from the flu, and more.

“

No alarm is felt by the Toronto health authorities at the outbreak in the city and they characterize it as the ordinary fall epidemic of la grippe and influenza . . . no special precautions have been taken outside of warnings given to the public from time to time.

”

Article in the Globe
September 3, 1918

People can learn from history. In fact, the reaction of our governments today are a direct result of the Spanish Flu.

The establishment of Canada’s Department of Health in 1919 was due to the epidemic. From then on—and as we witness today—public health was a responsibility shared by all levels of government.

Perhaps today’s speed is influenced by the warnings of the slow start to dealing with the Spanish Flu, which caused a vicious second wave.

In September of 1918, some people believed the worst of the Spanish Flu had passed. Little did they know that the second wave would begin in less than a month, contributing millions of deaths to one of the world’s worst pandemics.

In one article from September 3, 1918, the headline states “SPANISH FLU INVADES CITY – Hundreds of cases develop, but all of a mild form – 150 airmen in hospital – health authorities not alarmed and put sickness down to bad weather.”

Several weeks later in October, cases has risen by an alarming amount; hospitals became overwhelmed.

As scientists, premiers, and prime ministers tell us that the worst has perhaps passed for COVID-19, these articles serve as a stark warning, documenting a lull before reporting on a continued pandemic that lasted several more years.


Differences: Response Speed


“

Schools closed, churches closed, concerts canceled, meetings postponed indefinitely, theatres closed, movies closed, all by order of the Medical Health Officer . . . but note this—The Toronto Railway Company’s unspeakable cars travel the streets with every window closed; packed morning, noon, and night to suffocation, with a swaying mass of girls, women, and men . . . it is any wonder  the plague spreads?

”

Letter published in the Globe
October 28, 1919


Dr. William D. Young Memorial Fountain plaque, 2019.

A Standing Reminder


Newspaper articles shed light on how we recorded the devastating experience of the Spanish Flu, but how do we remember it?

A reminder of the dedication of health care workers and the seriousness of the Spanish Flu epidemic can be seen at Beaches Park near Kew Beach, on Lee Avenue. A water fountain, built there in 1920, is dedicated to Dr. William Young and erected in 1920. Young devoted himself to care for the Beaches children who were infected by the flu; he died of the flu himself in 1918.

What memorials or monuments will be constructed for our COVID-19 heroes?

Stay informed.

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