David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

A Local Journal of the 1918 Flu

Brandon Sun, June 22, 2020 – David McConkey


In trying to get some perspective of the current pandemic, I decided to look up the diaries and remembrances of my maternal grandparents who lived in Westman during the flu pandemic of 1918. I discovered some interesting snapshots of their time and comparisons with today.

My maternal grandparents were Ed and Julia Lund. Ed was a minister with the Methodist Church. Julia was a teacher before getting married and then fulfilled the role of homemaker and pastor’s wife. They moved around southern Manitoba, serving a church for about four years at a time. In 1917, the couple and their three young daughters moved to the southwestern Manitoba town of Lauder. A virtual ghost town today, Lauder, which is near Hartney, then was a bustling community.

My grandfather Ed was a dedicated diarist. He kept a record for many years, noting everything from quotidian personal life to significant world events.

The influenza pandemic of 100 years ago killed tens of millions worldwide. It had several waves between 1918 and 1920. The first wave, in the spring of 1918, was a mild one that barely impacted Canada. The second wave, in the fall and winter of 1918, was the most widespread and the most virulent.

Modern researchers have determined that the deadly second wave of the flu entered eastern Canada on Friday, Sept. 13, 1918. In the next few months, the disease swept the country. It killed 55,000 Canadians, most of whom were young people in their 20s and 30s.

The first mention of the flu in my grandfather’s diary was on Oct. 13, 1918: “Thanksgiving Sunday. Owing to the Spanish Influenza epidemic, Winnipeg churches closed today.” Oct. 19: “Spanish Influenza causing many deaths and creating quite a sensation.” Oct. 26: “Owing to the Spanish Flu scare in Hartney, they closed schools and churches. We called off our services, also disinfected the church, school, etc.” Nov. 3: “No cases in Lauder yet.”

Three days later, on Nov. 6, Ed noted people in Lauder were starting to come down with the flu. On Nov. 16, he reported that a local peace celebration marking the end of the Great War had apparently resulted in several new flu cases. He decided not to resume church services.

Nov. 23: “There have been over 40 cases of flu at Hartney and 40 at Napinka.” Dec. 27: “A great deal of sickness around, which may be the flu, but if so, a very mild type.” Jan. 21, 1919: Ed recorded hearing of two young women in other towns, relatives of local people, who had died of pneumonia following the flu.

There were a few more mentions in his diary, but that was about it. Writing years later, my grandmother recalled that no one in the Lauder district had died of the flu. But she remembered that several young people who had moved away succumbed during the pandemic and “were brought home from a distance to be laid to rest in our little cemetery.”

Reading these remembrances from the 1918 pandemic, I am struck by the similarities with today. Even though we now know more about viruses, we – like folks back then – do not know the future course of the pandemic and how it would play out, whether next month or next year. Today’s coronavirus kills mainly the old; the 1918 flu killed mainly the young. But diseases are capricious as to who gets sick, who lives and who dies.

Pandemics, then and now, cause death and disruption. But life goes on. And life goes on for us on two interconnected levels. One level is our personal lives: our work and activities (although disrupted), our families and friends, our local community. The other level is of the citizen, nation and globe: there are sometimes great wars, but there are always great changes – economic, technological, cultural – which are as relentless as a pandemic.  

Historians point out that the 1918 flu pandemic faded from people’s memories as soon as the disease itself faded away. I think there were two reasons for this. One: the story of the 1918 pandemic was overshadowed by the memory of the First World War. Two: as shocking as young people dying in a pandemic was, that wasn’t as shocking then as it would be today. People back then were accustomed to the young dying; whether young soldiers to war or young children to infectious disease.
 
The 1918 flu pandemic is part of our unfolding history. What about the current pandemic? We await the outcome and how the story will be remembered.

* * * *
See also: 

More Observations from a Century Ago

The Pandemic: Reflecting on Big Questions

Reflections on the Great War

Manitoba Day Musings

 

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