It began as a rumour. People overseas were dying of a new disease. No one gave it much
It was summer of 1918. Millions of young men had already died in the Great War. The death of a few more from disease seemed of little consequence. It wasn’t.
The Spanish Flu exploded in North America in August and spread swiftly around the globe. About one-third of the world’s population was infected; between 20 and 50 million people died. Without today’s medical technology, the flu spread quickly and killed just as quickly. Approximately 55,000 died in Canada and 675,000 in the USA. Mortality was especially severe among young adults.
The flu arrived in Saskatchewan in early October and hospitals were quickly overwhelmed. In November, 300 people died. Given a population of about 650,000, that amounts to 50 deaths per 100,000 for that month alone. The flu wrecked havoc in small communities such as Meyronne in southwestern Saskatchewan where my grandparents, Abraham and Addie Hanna, lived. Meyronne was slightly more fortunate than many of the surrounding villages — it had a resident doctor and nurse.
Abe kept diaries, and the first indication that all was not well was his entry of Sunday, October 27: “Sabbath School and service cancelled on account of influenza.” He was particularly concerned when their two children contracted the flu at the same time as Addie became “indisposed”. He was worried enough about the children to call in Dr. Donnelly; they recovered a few days later. Next, his hired man contracted the flu; he was ill for over a week. Abe seems to have survived it all.
The local paper, Meyronne Independent, chronicled the impact on the village. On November 6, it reported almost everyone in the village of about 250 people was ill. Dr. Donnelly had commandeered the hotel as a temporary hospital; it now housed 20 patients. He ordered the laundry to boil the sheets with bleach, and the cafes to provide meals for the sick. He would settle the bill later. He ordered those still well to bring anyone sick into town to be treated. School, as well as church, was cancelled. Business somehow limped along in spite of most staff being ill. The editor inserted some humour into the otherwise distressing news with the report that “No small number of “safety-firsters” took up their daily allotment of “preventative” when the ban was lifted;” – the provincial government had temporarily lifted the prohibition against selling alcohol.
Life seemed to be back to normal by late November. On December 1, Abe wrote “Attended service in eve.” The December 10 Independent makes no mention of illness. In all, six people died in the Meyronne district.
The flu did not subside in Saskatchewan until late December; a secondary peak in February 1919 claimed 50 more lives. Not until 1920 did the Spanish Flu fade from the face of the earth.
Margaret grew up on the farm her grandfather homesteaded, just outside the village of Meyronne in southwestern Saskatchewan. After obtaining degrees in archaeology, she was Curator of Aboriginal History at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum for 23 years. She retired in 2007, married and moved to Airdrie AB. Her writes mostly what she calls semi-fictionalized family history but she also dabbles in other genres. More information can be found at www.margaretghanna.wordpress.com
Caption: Photo by Kali Birks Gallup