The Impact of Spanish Influenza

No one could have imagined, when the flu first started spreading around Europe in May 1918, that it would eventually kill between 50 and 100 million people worldwide.  By October 1, 1918, it had crossed the ocean, along with the many Canadian soldiers returning from battle, and had become solidly entrenched in Saskatchewan.  Within the first three months, 3,906 people had succumbed to influenza – more than the number of Saskatchewan casualties in France during the war. 

Now, soldiers were replaced by nurses on the frontlines.  One of those was Annie Sheldon, who worked as a psychiatric nurse at the Saskatchewan Hospital in North Battleford.  Sheldon started with the hospital in 1915, as a means to support herself while her husband was away at war.  It was Sheldon’s strong constitution and commitment to her patients that was exemplified when the flu killed 115 residents of the hospital and decimated the staff, leaving just Sheldon and one physician – Dr. MacNeill.

“Luckily, we were able to protect ourselves.  We wore masks and sprayed ourselves with disinfectant.  We both existed on catnaps, not daring to leave the hospital in case our families were to become infected.” 

In many other communities across the province, the situation was similarly disturbing and bleak. 

“The general store at Paradise Hill sat empty except for the dead bodies of the store-keeper and his wife.  Inside a nearby tent there were three more victims.  The eerie silence was only broken by the sounds of a young boy digging graves for his dead mother, father, brother and sister.  Sadly, scenes like these were not uncommon in Saskatchewan at the end of the Great War.” 

From Maureen Lux, “The Bitter Flats”:  The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Saskatchewan.

In rural Saskatchewan, people were simply unarmed for the battle.  Bed rest and nursing care were essential for recovery; however, few people in rural Saskatchewan had access to a hospital.  Schools were closed, entire crews of farm labourers were taken down, and many lost family members, and sometimes even entire families were stricken and died of the flu. 

Influenza stunned the medical community.  By 1918, epidemics, like the plague and smallpox, had been stopped.  Now, a new killer gripped the world – killing approximately 50 thousand people in Canada – more than the casualties in the war.  Influenza attacked all age groups and demographics, but it did seem to prefer the young – those in their 20s to 40s.  It started with sudden weakness, pain and chills.  The victim would then develop a cough, which would turn dark from blood.  Often, what would kill the person would be the onset of pneumonia, and without any antibiotics, the disease was fatal. 

However, the Spanish Flu epidemic also forced changes to the health care system.  “The provision of free services from municipal doctors that had been introduced in 1916, was formalized by the provincial government in 1919…” (The Impact of the Spanish Influenza Epidemic on Saskatchewan Farm Families, 1918-1919)  Farm women were also given courses on how to tend to the sick, no doubt influencing some women to enter the practice of nursing.