Looking Back: Epidemic 1918

The last episode of world-wide quarantine was in 1918, just over 100 years ago. We did not have a local newspaper at the time but those of surrounding communities published reports from an expanding circle of communities as everything shut down.

The Province, October 19, 1918

A Province article from October 16, 1918 claims “Royal City to be Closed Up Tight”. The article goes on:

 “Schools, theatres, churches and all public meetings will be closed and semi-public functions such as dances and whist drives will also be forbidden.”

“The rapid spread of Spanish “flu” has caused this drastic order. Yesterday morning only 12 cases were reported. Today there are 50 cases with eleven of these isolated in the Royal Columbian hospital.”

The Province, October 19, 1918, published “”Flu” notes from Port Haney” which included school closures, cancellation of activities by various groups, and reports of serious illness within families, some of those with recently returned soldiers.

In Chilliwack on November 7, 1918, the Reeve posted an order that all “schools, churches, theatres, poolrooms, and public auctions” be closed. Further, “all public meetings are forbidden until further notice”.

All cases of influenza were to be immediately reported to the health officer for the city. Failure to report had heavy penalties including incarceration and in the case of deaths, interment had to happen within 24 hours.

The instructions to the populace could have come from any newspaper today – wash your hands, disinfect surfaces, and isolate. The big difference is that they were more familiar orders in those days.

They were in the time before vaccinations were common and anti-biotics were few and weak. There was nothing to help with viruses. Treatment was limited to flushing nasal passages with salt water and applying chest poultices. Quarantine was the only approach to stop contagious diseases in their tracks.

Gloria Morrisette, a local writer for the Gazette newspaper, told her husband’s story with WWI and the flu. It hit towards the end of the war when everyone was exhausted already. Murray Morrisette was assigned to look after a narrow gauge railway running between a large camp in France and the battle front to keep the line intact despite constant bombing. It was in this setting that the flu epidemic first struck.

Murray Morrisette survived his case of the flu with lifelong health consequences, but many of his friends did not. It was soldiers desperate to return home after war to loved ones equally desperate to see them that fueled the pandemic.

The Province, October 19, 1918

A pandemic is not exactly slow-moving but then as now the people of Maple Ridge could see it coming and took protective measures that greatly reduced the number of deaths locally. There are few deaths recorded for Maple Ridge in late 1918 but that is mostly due to the nearest hospital being in New Westminster where deaths spiked.

The Province, October 29, 1918

In the absence of the internet, the snake oil salesmen were busy selling quack cures and re-purposing existing compounds as flu fighters. In addition to pills and ointments sellers of other goods suffering from the economic consequences tried to get in on the act with one ad from the Province of Oct 29 suggesting that buying a new pair of sturdy boots would help protect one from the flu.

Stick with the tried and true. Quarantine methods are well known and have served us since Maple Ridge became a place. Stay safe and stay home!

Val Patenaude, Maple Ridge Museum director, 2020.04.06