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
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.