History repeating itself; Lambton historians look at the Spanish Flu pandemic

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Dr. Charles William Sawers treated patients in the Watford-Warwick area, but tragically lost his wife Catherine to the illness. “She was a model wife and mother of an exceedingly affectionate disposition, bright and winning in her ways.” Both their young daughters survived though, Edith living until 93 and Ruth to the age of 105.

Alex Kurial
Local Journalism Initiative

We live in a time many call unprecedented.

Children aren’t in a classroom, businesses are closed, church members don’t gather on Sunday, all because of a global pandemic.

But a study by Lambton historians shows what’s happening today during the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t much different than what occurred over 100 years ago when the Spanish Flu swept across the globe killing hundreds of thousands of people.

Members of the Heritage Sarnia-Lambton Museum network came together May 28, to discuss their research into Lambton’s handling of the disease.

The Spanish Flu of 1918-19 was one of the deadliest pandemics the world has ever seen, claiming the lives of tens of millions of people around the world. Ontario was not spared from the casualties, suffering around 300,000 cases and about 10,000 deaths. 
Lambton County fared better than most in Ontario during the pandemic.

After reporting their first death from the disease on Oct. 11, 1918, public spaces were closed Oct. 13, with libraries following suit a few days later.

Much of the medical advice remained largely the same as today: self-isolate, rest, eat good food, avoid travel if possible, and wear a mask if you worked as a caregiver.
And the people in Lambton were also subject to “fake news” in 1918. There were also instances of doctors taking out ads for questionable home ‘cures’ in the local newspaper, as well as erroneously suggestions those living close to Lake Huron would see the contagion dispelled by the strong breeze.

One noticeable difference between Spanish Flu and COVID-19 is the age of their victims.
While COVID-19 has disproportionately affected seniors, Spanish Flu victims were mostly 20-40 year olds.

Dana Thorne of the Lambton Heritage Museum believes this age group had not been exposed to an earlier, less deadly strain of the virus, and failed to build up any immunity.

Public health officials today are warning of a second wave of COVID-19 – likely in the fall. That knowledge is largely based on what happened in the Spanish Flu pandemic. The first wave of Spanish Flu was not the deadliest. A second wave hit much harder in terms of casualties, with third and fourth waves also proving costly as the virus spread into 1920. 
More parallels between COVID-19 and Spanish Flu came in public attitudes about how serious the Spanish Flu actually was.

Citing local newspaper reports from the time, Nicole Aszalos from the Lambton County Archives showed that “many members of the public took this threat seriously, while others disregarded recommendations to discourage the spread of the disease.

“ Even then, others still viewed the disease as not contagious, and this was a perspective that some members of the community maintained even as the Spanish Flu was ravaging the community around them.”

Myrtle Dunham was a 32 year- old Arkona resident, who in early 1919 assisted a local family afflicted with influenza with the birth of their child. Dunham contracting influenza, and she passed away soon after.


Like today, there was also a rush to blame a foreign power for the devastation. “Is German agent spreading influenza in the city?” read a newspaper headline following a surge in cases during October 1918. People believed German agents were spreading the virus in children’s candy bars, as Canada entered the final days of World War I against the European nation.

While this turned out to be nothing more than rumor, the number of Spanish Flu cases surged after large public celebrations to mark the end of the war in November.
When schools were closed, there was an outcry. Many cited the fact that more people died from scarlet fever or chicken pox, and felt the precaution was overblown. 

“Many of our citizens are disinfecting their homes and taking other steps to minimize the disease, but others are showing an apparent indifference that cannot but have a bad effect,” a local reporter observed in late 1918. 

While 2020 saw runs on toilet paper and food, different services were at the forefront of customer demand in 1918.

One of these was the druggist, who was the only retailer who could sell alcohol in prohibition-Canada – unless you visited the local bootlegger.
Telephone companies also became overwhelmed.

Bell pleaded with people to limit use of their phones as their operators were either becoming sick or overwhelmed operating the switchboard. 

The impact the Spanish Flu had on local First Nations communities is not as clear according to Glenn Stott of the Arkona Lions Museum. First Nations were affected heavily by the Spanish Flu, although records are largely incomplete as doctors did not keep detailed specifics of First Nations deaths, often not even listing a name for the deceased. Stott says the population of the Sarnia Reserve dropped heavily as the virus spread.

Concerns about the border also played into the Spanish Flu pandemic. Unlike today, officials left the border open to US traffic. A period of heavy ferry crossings from Lambton County may have played a role in cases spiking across the St. Clair Lake in Michigan however, although the Port Huron Medical Officer of Health resisted calls to shut down the crossings. 

Local historians found that like today, the pandemic forced officials to look at how the health system was operating to see if more could have been done to prevent the deaths of thousands of people.

In the long-term, the inability to prevent the spread of Spanish Influenza led to a major shift in Canada’s public health approach.

The federal Department of Health was established in 1919, while the Ontario Provincial Board of Health was replaced with the Department of Health. Disease prevention was given an increased emphasis, in addition to disease management. 

Both of David McLean’s grandmothers contracted the Spanish Flu, but were able to overcome the disease.