The latest on the flu: A snapshot of the 1918 outbreak

By Ian McKechnie

The latest on the flu: A snapshot of the 1918 outbreak

On November 1, 1918, five women boarded a train in Lindsay bound for Oshawa. Etta Graham, Aileen Hughes and Elsie Sutcliffe were members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), a corps of nursing aides organized by the Canadian Red Cross and the St. John Ambulance.

The VAD was instrumental in saving lives during the First World War, and the sight of a big red cross emblazoned across the side of an ambulance piloted by VAD personnel had become one of the most famous symbols of health care during that conflict and during the subsequent flu outbreak — much as the N95 face mask has in 2020. 

Ian McKechnie, writer-at-large.

Joined by two nurses from Ross Memorial Hospital, Etta, Aileen and Elsie were en route to a city beset by the ravages of the influenza pandemic, often referred to as the Spanish Flu. We can just about imagine the conversation taking place in that railway carriage as it rattles its way across a countryside resplendent in the colours of autumn…

“Well girls, what’s the latest on the flu?” Aileen asks. Her colleagues are engrossed as Elsie reads from a newspaper purchased from the news butcher making his way through the train.

“Fenelon Falls is stepping up its measures,” she notes. “‘The Board of Health has issued orders that churches, schools, and pool rooms are to be closed on account of the influenza epidemic until further notice…’”

“It’s about time, too,” Aileen interrupts. “Why they didn’t do that a few weeks back is quite beyond me. Go on — what else does it say?”

Elsie clears her throat and continues. “‘While cases of ‘flu’ in the village are fortunately few and far between the surrounding country contains a large number of cases, some of them being of quite a serious nature, and the local doctors are kept busy attending them.’”

“Few and far between,” Aileen repeats rhetorically. “The cases would have been fewer and farther between had ‘few and far between’ been the personal motto of every citizen. The fewer people gathered and the farther apart they stand, the better.”

“The better for all of us,” Etta pipes up. “We don’t want to find ourselves in the same predicament as Minnie Crosier. Poor girl. She had only been working for two years.”

“Has she died?” Aileen asks. Minnie Crosier, a Lindsay-born nurse, is well-known by many of the young women.

“Yes,” Etta replies. “And only 25 years old, too. She had been sick for almost a month, according to this item. ‘Together with influenza, pneumonia, and pleurisy developed, and with such serious complications the deceased lingered between life and death for the past few days,’” reads Etta. “She was conscious until the very end.”

“Isn’t that a shame!” exclaims Aileen. “Her family was so proud of her. A real saint.”

“She had a brother and a sister, didn’t she?” asks Etta.

“Yes,” answers Aileen. “Charles and Dorothy. Charles was wounded during the war and taken prisoner, too. Oh, the poor family has had such a time over the past few years. I can’t imagine the grief they are enduring. The ‘flu’ is so indiscriminate in its choice of victims.”

“And they’re all so young,” Elsie comments. “Two more deaths have been reported in Bobcaygeon, and one only a year younger than Minnie.”

“Oh, who now?” Aileen says. “I have several friends in Bobcaygeon.”

“A Mrs. Moody,” says Etta, grabbing the paper from Elsie. “Twenty-four years old. Leaves behind a husband, and a little girl who now won’t have a mother to tuck her in at night.”

Silence falls over the carriage as Etta, Aileen, and Elsie contemplate the gravity of the situation. Normally, the Grand Trunk Railway’s Lindsay-to-Oshawa train is packed with people looking forward to visiting relatives in the latter’s bustling environs. Not so on this Tuesday morning. A few travelling salesmen stare blankly through the windows as autumn’s pastoral landscape flies by, its browns, golds, oranges and reds all blurring together like the passengers’ varied anxieties. The epidemic has caused quite the slump in business, and the salesmen are wary about paying visits to homes where the flu could be lurking invisibly in the lungs of prospective customers.

A grim situation awaits our three VAD friends when they step off the train in Oshawa, which has been hit particularly hard by the flu, with almost 80 deaths reported. Almost all of those who have died range in age from 20 to 40 years old — people in the prime of life cut down by a virus wreaking havoc around the globe. Undeterred, Etta, Aileen, and Elsie got to work. 

A few months later, Lindsay’s Medical Health Officer reported that of more than 1,000 cases of influenza which befell the town in the fall of 1918, some 21 people succumbed to its ravages. Within days of his report, a brand new isolation hospital will open at the southeast corner of Colborne and Angeline Streets. Funded and furnished in part by the Women’s Institute, the little white building would stand for decades as an enduring reminder of when the 20th century’s worst pandemic made its presence felt in Victoria County. More than 100 years later, the same spirit shown by Etta Graham, Aileen Hughes, Elsie Sutcliffe, Minnie Crosier and other carers lives on in today’s front-line workers.

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