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. 


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.

‘A Giant Leap for Mankind’ – Oshawa Times and the Moon Landing

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

With twelve words, Astronaut Neil Armstrong left his mark on 20th century history: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the surface of the moon, followed minutes later by Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin.  The crew of the Apollo 11 mission was rounded out by pilot Michael Collins, who remained in lunar orbit during the moon landing.

Oshawa Times, 21 July 1969

The eight day mission of the Apollo crew was many years in the making.  The ‘Space Race’ competition between the United States and the USSR began in the 1950s, ramped up with John F. Kennedy’s promise in 1961 to put an American on the moon by the end of that decade, and was essentially won with the landing of Apollo 11.  The event was watched live by millions, the footage has been played and replayed countless times, and the events of this and other space missions have been dramatized through the years.  The lunar landing captivated those in 1969 and continues to inspire today.

The people of Oshawa were naturally caught up in the events leading up to the launch, and the Oshawa Times from that week show how it was being reported.  On July 14, along with an article about how the astronauts were feeling ahead of the mission, the Times reported how the mission was to be televised and what viewers could expect.  “More people throughout the world are expected to watch the Apollo 11 moon flight on television than any previous single event,” the Times stated.  “Virtually every country – including some Communist nations – has planned television, radio, and newspaper coverage of the event, and Venezuela has declared a public holiday because of the lunar landing’s ‘great importance for the history of mankind.’”  The article further warned viewers not to expect high quality images from when Armstrong first steps on the surface.  Another article which appeared later in that edition talked about the job for the medical doctor who was to monitor the health of the astronauts before, during, and after the mission, which included a 21 day quarantine after returning to earth, in case of ‘space germs.’

Oshawa Times, 15 July 1969

On July 15, the Times reprinted a message to the astronauts sent by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, reading “Man has reached out and touched the tranquil moon.  Puisse ce haut fait permattre a l’homme de redecouvrir la terre et d’y trouver la paix (May this great feat permit man to rediscover the earth and to find peace there).”

“An aura of Buck Rogers surrounds the big news story of the week – probably the biggest news story of the century,” the Times reported in their editorial on July 15. “Never before have men set out on a more hazardous or complex mission… As we marvel at the courage and skill of the astronauts the wish can only be God speed and a safe return.”

When Apollo 11 launched on the morning of Wednesday, July 16, it dominated the front page of the Oshawa Times including one picture of the rocket taking off and one of Neil Armstrong.  An article also featured on the front page highlights a Canadian connection to the mission, “Apollo Astronauts to Land with Made-In Quebec Legs.”  Heroux Machine Shops of Longueuil, Quebec manufactured the landing gear for the lunar module.  Further in the paper was an amusing addition of tips for the astronauts from Edmonton Grade 4 students.  Anecdotes included: “If I go to the moon I would surely bring my records because there is a lot of dancing on the moon because there is no gravity,” and “I would bring a flag of Canada. And make a flag of the moon. And the designs will be a moon and me sitting on it. The moon would be yellow. I would be a stick lady and the sides would be black.”

Oshawa Times, 16 July 1969

On July 18, a small article ran on the front page under the headline “62 Would Go on Moon Trip,” and the article reads as follows:

Montreal (CP) – Air Canada is accepting reservations for its first flight to the moon.

Sixty-two have been made so far, a spokesman said Thursday.

No price is quoted and no down payment requested but the airline is serious about the matter, the spokesman said.

All you have to do is make a reservation for the flight and let Air Canada know where you can be reached.  If you are high enough on the reservations list, the airline will contact you when the details of the inaugural moon flight are known to find out whether you still want to go at the price you will have to pay.

With 20/20 hindsight, we know that the mission was successful, but on July 18, the outcome of Apollo 11 was still unfolding; “Death Waits if Astronauts Become Marooned,” a headline on page 3, bleakly spelled out the worst case scenario for the mission.  “Death awaits the Apollo astronauts of they become marooned on the moon – and they know it for theses is no rescue vehicle that could save them.”

In that same edition, many notable Oshawa citizens shared their thoughts on the moon landing.  MPP Clifford Pilkey said “The tremendous technical repercussions should reflect a better life for all people; I hope that this much scientific know-how can be generated to attack problems in other areas too.”  A 97-year-old Col R.S. McLaughlin, although “keenly interested in the whole thing” didn’t think he should stay up after 2am to watch the landing happen live. Ald. Ruth Bestwick said, “I’m not against the moon landing, but I think the money could be put to better use,” while fellow Ald. Gordon Attersley said “The walk will prove to man that nothing is impossible.  Many of us place too many limitations on ourselves.”

The landmark event took place in the early hours of Sunday, July 20; the Oshawa Times did not put out a paper on Sundays in 1969, so the following day was filled with coverage of the landing.  In fact, the Times suggested its readers “file this copy of The Oshawa Times for reference in the years to come… Really, what else is in news today?”  They included photos from the surface of the moon, the entire transcript of the landing, reactions of Canadians to the event, local reactions, and more.

Said Mayor Hayward Murdoch: “Fantastic. Thrilling. The human aspect as well as the technological evolution that has gone on to bring this about is almost beyond the average person’s comprehension. The next big thrill is to see them get off there today.”

Finally, Oshawa was one of countless communities who sent congratulations to Washington.  Mayor Murdoch sent a telegram to President Richard Nixon, the text of which was printed in the Times on July 22. “We respectfully ask that you accept our congratulations for the tremendous human and technical accomplishments of Mr. Neil Armstrong, Col. Edwin Aldrin and Col. Michael Collins and their back-up crew.  Their contribution to world history has thrilled many thousands and we request you convey our gratitude for a job well done and a safe and speedy return home.”

Oshawa Times, 25 July 1969

Where the Streets Get Their Names – Coyston Drive

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

For several years,  the City of Oshawa has had a policy on naming new streets, with an emphasis on names paying tribute to Oshawa’s war dead and veterans.  These streets, as well as others which relate to World War I or World War II, are denoted with a poppy on the street sign.

If you’re driving around the Oshawa, southeast of the Rossland/Harmony intersection, you’ll encounter Coyston Drive and Court, named after Robert Henry Coyston who died in 1916.


Robert was born in London, England on 4 March 1892, to Arthur and Clara (Wells) Coyston.  The family, which included siblings William, George, Alice, Ethel, and Laura, immigrated to Canada in April 1906, settling in Oshawa, Cedardale specifically.  On October 30, 1913, he married Ethel Millicent Hudson, and on December 4, 1914, they welcomed their son, Albert Robert.  Less than two years after their marriage, Robert enlisted into the military; his attestation papers are dated 12 June 1915, and they reveal that Robert had previous experience, serving for eight years with the militia.  His attestation papers also tell us that he stood at 5 feet 7 inches in height, had a medium  complexion, grey eyes, and dark hair.

Robert arrived in France on Mar 16, 1916, serving with the 13th Battalion, Royal Highlanders of Canada. By all appearances, he was seeing success with the army, being promoted to sergeant on July 19, 1916.  A few short months later, Robert went missing in action during the Battle of Courcellette on October 8, 1916; he was later declared ‘Killed in Action.’  His wife received a memorial plaque and scroll, and his mother received a Memorial Cross.

After the end of WWI, the Adanac Military Cemetery was established in Miraumont, Departement de la Somme, Picardie, France, the name taken from spelling Canada backwards; as per the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, “graves were brought in from the Canadian battlefields around Courcelette and small cemeteries surrounding Miraumont,” and this is where Robert is laid to rest.

Robert Henry Coyston was one of 134 Oshawa citizens who went overseas in the First World War who never made it home.  His name is included on the monument in Memorial Park.  He was one of over 60,000 Canadians who were killed during the war.


This November 11 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I and is commemorated as Remembrance Day in Canada and other Commonwealth Nations.  May we always remember the sacrifices made by those who came before us.

Where The Streets Get Their Names – Courcelette Avenue

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

Last November, in honour of Remembrance Day, I shared why Oshawa has poppies on certain street signs.  If you’re driving in Central Oshawa, streets like Verdun Road, Vimy Avenue, and St. Julien Street are marked with a red poppy on the corner.  Similar signs are also predominant in north Oshawa, where many streets have been named after Oshawa soldiers.

Courcelette Avenue at Ritson Road

Found east off Ritson, between Olive and Eulalie, is Courcelette Avenue. Like Vimy and Verdun, Courcelette Avenue has been named in recognition of a World War I battle, and September 15 marked the 100th anniversary of its start.  This week long engagement was a part of the large Battle of the Somme.

"The Battle for Courcelette, 1918" by soldier and war artist Louis Weirter CWM 19710261-0788; Beverbrook Collection of War Art; Canadian War Museum. Accessed from the Canadian Encyclopedia
“The Battle for Courcelette, 1918” by
soldier and war artist Louis Weirter
CWM 19710261-0788; Beverbrook Collection of War Art; Canadian War Museum.

While the Battle for Courcelette didn’t have the decisive victory the Allies were hoping for, there were two major outcomes which forever changed warfare.   First, the ‘creeping barrage.’  Trench warfare had caused several stalemates during WWI; soldiers were careful to avoid the aptly-named No Mans Land.  With the creeping barrage, the soldiers walked behind the artillary barrage at a pace of 100 yards, or 91 metres, per lift.  As explained by the Canadian War Museum:

This barrage was not meant to destroy the enemy trench systems, although this sometimes happened, but to drive defenders into their protective dugouts. The infantry would closely follow the barrage, called ‘leaning on the barrage’, in order to cross No Man’s Land before enemy troops could emerge from cover to fire at them.

The other point of significant about this battle is that saw the use of tanks.  Only 1 of 6 of the tanks achieved its objective, and as described by the War Museum, the tanks were “mechanically unreliable and as slow as a walking person,” however, the impact of these machines were profound.  The psychological impact of tanks alone forever changed warfare.  Large, imposing and, fearsome, many German soldiers reportedly surrendered at the sight of them.

The Battle of Courcelette was the first battle of the Somme that saw Canadian participation, and in the end it saw 29,376 casualties.

Courcelette Canadian Memorial; image from Veterans Affairs Canada

Courcelette Avenue first appears in Oshawa City Directories in 1923.

For more information on the Battle of Courcelette, please visit:

The Canadian War Museum

The Canadian Encyclopedia

Veterans Affairs Canada

Long Live The Queen: Elizabeth II Becomes Longest Reigning Monarch

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

Today marks a fascinating day in history: Queen Elizabeth II has become the longest reigning British Monarch, surpassing her two-times Great Grandmother, Queen Victoria.  Queen Elizabeth has asked for no celebrations to mark the milestone, but rather to mark it with reverence and respect.  As a museum, we thought it would be of interest and appropriate to reflect back on Her Majesty’s reign and what the world was like when she became Queen.

The beginning of a monarch’s reign is an interesting time, because it begins upon the passing of the previous monarch; in the case of Elizabeth, she became Queen on February 6, 1952, the day her father, King George VI died.  Local newspapers reported the news of the King’s death with a great deal of sorrow and shock; the news of his passing was not expected.  It was expressed, as is the custom, “The King is Dead; Long Live the Queen.”

From the Oshawa Daily Times
From the Oshawa Daily Times

The death of King did not make front page news, but rather the entire fifth page was dedicated to his passing and his life, with the headline:  ‘King George, Valiant Leader of People in War and Peace.’ There is also a page dedicated to images of the royal family, focusing on Elizabeth and George.

From the Oshawa Daily Times
From the Oshawa Daily Times

The newspaper from February 6, 1952 has been digitized and can be read online:

The following day, the headline read ‘Queen Arrives in London,’ as Elizabeth had been in Africa at the time of her father’s passing. The front page is mostly filled with stories about the Queen and more information about the passing of the King, including the official announcement of his cause of death (Thrombosis.) It was reported  that the day of the King’s funeral will be a national day of mourning for Canada.

While officially becoming Queen in February 1952, Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation did not take place until June 1953.  Celebrations to mark this event were held in England, Ottawa, as well as locally.  The Daily Times reported an ‘elaborate presentation’ was arranged at the bandshell in Memorial Park, including choirs, the Oshawa Civic and Regimental band, and fireworks.

From the Oshawa Daily Times
From the Oshawa Daily Times
Parade in Oshawa from Alexandra Park to Memorial Park, June 1953, from the Oshawa Daily Times
Parade in Oshawa from Alexandra Park to Memorial Park, June 1953, from the Oshawa Daily Times

*Many thanks to our summer student Carey for combing the newspapers for the above information!

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