Pandemic Reflections

By Melissa Cole, Curator

I recently joined my fellow Gen Xers and received my first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine.  When my age category was announced, I was eager to get my name on a list and get my vaccine appointment booked.  I admit to feeling a bit of anxiety, mainly due to the media.  There is a lot of controversy about the vaccine and that 1 out of 100,000 people may experience a blood clot.  Yes, I could be that one person, and many friends also expressed the same concerns.  Fortunately, I received my vaccine early and was able to share my experience with them after receiving my first dose.  Hopefully this helped them with their decision.  I did feel a bit sluggish the next day and had a slight headache for a few days. 

My decision came down to doing my part, outweighing the risks and protecting my family, especially my 13-year-old daughter who is not currently eligible for the vaccine.  I also spoke with my family doctor as that is who I booked my vaccine appointment with at the Oshawa Clinic.

This makes my wonder about the experiences of individuals that lived through past pandemics in our community such as the 1918 Flu and smallpox.  What decisions did they have to make to contribute to limiting the spread of a virus in their community? 

Vaccines were not available for the 1918 flu pandemic. Control efforts worldwide were limited to isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings.  Vaccines were available for small pox, and when a mild strain of smallpox hit Oshawa in early November 1919, the Board of Health ordered all should be vaccinated. Provincial Chief Officer of Health John McCullough ordered all civil servants to receive shots.1  

Canadian Statesman, November 13, 1919

This information is what we know from researching local newspapers and provincial/county health records.  But these records do not always tell you what the average person was experiencing during the 1918 flu and smallpox pandemic.  How did people feel about the vaccination for small pox in 1919?  

COVID-19 has reinforced my perspective on impactful historical events and how they are told in the historical record.  Living through this pandemic reinforces that the history of the individuals involved in a large event are just as important as the history of the event itself.  Although we are all living through this pandemic together, how we are dealing with it and the challenges that we face changes from person to person.  These are the stories that allow for connections that contribute to a better understanding of our history. 

If you are interested in sharing your COVID-19 experience with us and ensuring history reflects those individuals living through this pandemic in Oshawa, you can learn more about our project here:

https://covid19oshawa.com/


The Globe, November 8, 1919. Editorial.

Remembering the Lives Lost from the 1918 Flu Pandemic

By Laura Suchan, Executive Director

Recently one of my colleagues shared news of a project she was involved in to honour the more than 700 people who succumbed to influenza in the Wellington Region of New Zealand. The 1918 Influenza Kaori Cemetery Project was a two year project to remember those who died in the pandemic by cleaning their headstones, tidying burial plots and researching the family histories.  This project prompted me to think about Oshawa’s Union Cemetery and how many Influenza victims from the 1918 pandemic were buried in the cemetery.

In an earlier blog post about the Spanish Influenza, Curator Melissa Cole noted how the pandemic affected Oshawa.  The Spanish Flu reached the United States in March 1918 and soon after Canada, through troop, hospital and civilian ships sailing from England to Grosse Île.  The Ports of Montreal and Halifax soon became the main routes of infection into Canada, however by late June/early July the Flu spread across the country via the railway.   It came in multiple waves. The first wave took place in the spring of 1918, then in the fall of 1918, a mutation of the influenza virus produced an extremely contagious, virulent, and deadly form of the disease. This second wave caused 90% of the deaths that occurred during the pandemic. Subsequent waves took place in the spring of 1919 and the spring of 1920.  Between 1917 and 1918 the deaths recorded in Oshawa increased by 67 to 213 as compared to 146 in the earlier year.  Still, the situation in Oshawa was better than for many communities.  At the height of the pandemic, beds where placed in the armouries to treat the sick, and all churches and schools were closed to prevent it from spreading. 

To see just how devastating the Flu pandemic was in Oshawa, I turned to the Ontario, Canada, Deaths and Deaths Overseas 1869-1948 database for the Town of Oshawa, for the months starting October 1, 1918 until March 31, 1919. Within this database I was able to search for any cause of death listed as “Influenza,” “Spanish Flu,” and “Flu.” I also looked for any case where the secondary cause of death was listed as influenza. In some cases, the coroner listed the cause of death as “Pneumonia” following a case of “Influenza.” If influenza was mentioned, I included the death. This was not in any means a scientific review of the data, however there were a few observations I was able to make.

Observations

  • 50 – number of people who died as a result of the flu or an illness following the flu during the 6 month period
  • 23 – deaths were reported in those 25 years of age or younger
  • 2 months – the age of the youngest victim – Robert Starie
  • 70 years – age of the oldest victim – Alvin Terry
  • 30 – number of those buried in Union Cemetery
  • Week of October 27-November 2 – the deadliest week in the 6 month period with 16 deaths. The previous week saw 15 deaths due to influenza.  These 2 weeks accounted for more than half the deaths reported in the 6 month period.
  • October 1918 – the deadliest month with 35 deaths, followed by November 1918 with 7 deaths, February 1919 – 4 deaths, December 1918 with 3 deaths. January 1919 reported only 1 death and 0 deaths were reported in March 1919.

Remembering some of the victims of the pandemic

Hattie Hewson

Image from FindAGrave.com

Hattie Maud (Ham) Hewson lived on Ontario Street with her husband William when she passed away at the age of 39. Her official death record lists miscarriage and influenza as her causes of death. William passed away in 1960.

Alex Swankie

Image from FindAGrave.com

Alex Swankie was a Private with the 37th Battalion and fought in France with the 60th Battalion C.E.F. He was born in Scotland, November 11, 1891 and was a machinist by trade. According to his Attestation Papers, he signed up for the military in Niagara, June 10, 1915.  He was discharged from the 60th Battalion in early 1917 as the result of a knee injury and was in outpatient treatment in Toronto until October 31, 1918. Alex died February 16, 1919 at the age of 27 of pneumonia and influenza.

Melville and Rose Babcock

Melville and Rose (Darlington) Babcock were married in 1900 and both died within one week of each other from the Flu.  Melville was the first to pass away on October 21 1918 at the Oshawa Hospital after suffering from the Flu for one week and pneumonia for 3 days.  Rose is listed as the informant for Melville’s death. Six days later, on October 27, 1918, Rose also succumbed to the flu at Oshawa Hospital. Rose is buried in Union Cemetery as noted in the death registry however there was no burial location noted.  There is a good possibility he is also in Union Cemetery.

Marjorie Lander

Influenza also touched the lives of two well known Oshawa families. Marjorie Gibson Hoig Lander was a young mother of at least 3 children when she passed away from influenza on November 7, 1918.  Marjorie was the daughter of Oshawa’s Dr. Hoig, and she married coal merchant Elgin Vesta Lander in 1910.  Lander was a successful coal and wood merchant, and the couple lived at 221 Simcoe Street North, just south of Parkwood.  Daughters Alice and Virginia were born in 1913 and 1915 followed by son David in 1917. Marjorie was only 31 years old when she died.  Her husband Elgin remarried in 1927 and died in 1976.  Both are buried in Union Cemetery.

Advertisement for Elgin Lander’s coal and wood business, 1911 Oshawa Business Directory, OPL Collection

Gladys McGregor

The year 1919 was not kind to the McGregor family.  Daughter Gladys Mae died in February of the flu, aged 13.  Her father Robert McGregor, a harness maker, died in June 1919 from Tuberculosis and mother Lucy Parish McGregor died in November 1919 of nephritis (swelling of the kidney). All three are buried in Union Cemetery.  Robert and Lucy had other children who would have been left orphans by their parents’ deaths.  

To find out more about the 1918 Influenza Kaori Cemetery Project please visit https://1918influenzakarori.weebly.com/home.html


To view Laura’s research of people in the Town of Oshawa who died of Influenza between October 1918-March 1919, view this document:

Spanish Flu in 1918 and COVID-19 in 2020

By Melissa Cole, Curator

Just over 100 years ago, the Province of Ontario, including the Town of Oshawa experienced a public health crisis that resembles today’s COVID-19.  From 1918 – 1920 the Spanish Influenza swept the world and killed 50 million people world wide, taking the lives of young and otherwise healthy adults.  The Spanish Influenza started in February 1918 while the First World War was ongoing and approaching its end, creating the ideal environment for the flu to infect, multiply, and spread rapidly across the globe.  It reached the United States in March 1918, and it reached Canada through troop, hospital and civilian ships sailing from England to Grosse Île.  The Ports of Montreal and Halifax were the main routes of infection into Canada; by late June and early July, it spread across the country via the railway.  According to public health authorities, “The failure to restrict train travel early on was one of the terrible oversights.”   It came in multiple waves. The first wave took place in the spring of 1918, then in the fall of 1918, a mutation of the influenza virus produced an extremely contagious, virulent, and deadly form of the disease. This second wave caused 90% of the deaths that occurred during the pandemic. Subsequent waves took place in the spring of 1919 and the spring of 1920.

Image from the collection of the Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta

In Canada, 50,000 people died, accelerated by complications from infections such as pneumonia.  In Ontario, 300,000 cases and 8,705 deaths were recorded. But these figures likely don’t tell the whole story: medical systems were overwhelmed, meaning that many fatalities almost certainly went unreported; this is evident in the reports that were sent in from local Medical Officers of Health.  The largest percentages of deaths in Ontario from the Spanish Flu occurred in York County which represented 17.3% of the total epidemic deaths. York contained Toronto, the largest city at the time. Carleton County, which included Ottawa, accounted for 5.8% of the deaths, and Wentworth, including Hamilton, had 5.1% of the deaths. No other individual county had more than 5% of the total deaths.  Between 1918 and 1919, Oshawa had a population of approximately 10,000, and there were just over 300 deaths recorded; 84 of those deaths were infants under one year of age.  

Just like today, we tend to think of the young and the elderly as being most at risk, but most of those who died during the Spanish Flu epidemic were between the ages of 20 and 40 — the same demographic already decimated by the First World War. In Canada, the provinces of Quebec and Alberta were the most severely affected, which is one of the reasons archives like the Glenbow Archives in Alberta have a wealth of information related to public health and the Spanish Flu.  

In 1918, the Spanish Flu swept through the Maternity hospital located at Llewellyn Hall, and it was reported that 95% of the babies in the Ward passed away. Unfortunately these numbers were not accounted for or submitted to the provincial board of health as a direct relation to the Spanish Flu, but this may have been the reason why 53 infants under the age of one died that year.  

Provincial Board of Health report, 1919

The following year in 1919, it was reported by Dr. McKay, the medical officer of health for Oshawa, that the town was not greatly affected by the Spanish Flu in 1918, which is indicated by the decrease in deaths attributed to ‘the freedom of the town from the Spanish Flu epidemic.’  When the epidemic hit Oshawa, beds were placed in the armouries to treat the sick, and all churches and schools were closed to prevent spreading.  

Just like today, everyone was encouraged to stay home, however, on November 11, 1918, it was impossible to convince Ontarians to stay home. Despite continued concerns about public gatherings and pleas from politicians to wait until December, people all over the province took to the streets to celebrate the Allied victory and the end of the The Great War.  

Armistice Parade, 1918; image courtesy of the Thomas Bouckley Collection, The RMG

This was our own community celebrating in the streets of Oshawa with the Armistice Parade that took place in November 1918.   It would be the following year, in 1919, when Oshawa and the surrounding communities were hit the hardest by the Spanish Influenza.  Let’s take a lesson from history, and please stay home. 


Resources:

The Report of the Provincial Board of Health Ontario, 1920

The Report of the Provincial Board of Health Ontario, 1905 

Christopher Rutty and Sue Sullivan, This is Public Health: A Canadian History.  Canadian Public Health Association, 2010

Susan Goldenburg, Killer Flu, September 11, 2018. Canada’s History

M. Humphries, Lessons From the 1918 Pandemic: Focus on Treatment, Not Prevention, Globe and Mail, July 24, 2009.