Though the term physical distancing is a 2020 trend, the concept was employed in Collingwood in 1918 when the Spanish Flu began infecting and killing residents.
On October 7, 1918, the provincial officer of health issued a statement advising against shutting down stores and institutions, calling them “ill-advised measures, which only serve to irritate the public and accomplish no useful purpose.”
But the flu spread fast, carried by soldiers returning from the First World War, and taxing an already depleted medical and nursing staff in Ontario (also due to the war).
On October 19, 1918, a front page headline in a local newspaper read The “Flu” is Here. The article that followed noted the “flu” had invaded Collingwood and there were “a number of cases.”
“Health authorities are resorting to drastic measures,” stated the article, before noting an order was issued to close churches, schools, theatres, and billiard rooms. “In fact, calling off all gatherings of a public character until further notice.”
Two days before (Oct. 17, 1918), The Collingwood Bulletin reported there were a few flu cases in Collingwood “not more than ten or twelve cases.”
Instructions provided to local teachers included avoiding needless crowding “influenza is a crowd disease,” and keeping your mouth, skin, and clothes clean.
Other advice suggested breathing through your nose instead of your mouth, smothering coughing and sneezing, and keeping cool when you walk and warm when you ride or sleep.
The public was encouraged to avoid sharing napkins, dishes, or utensils and to open the windows whenever practicable.
“When the air is pure, breathe all of it you can – breathe deeply,” suggested the literature being distributed at the time.
Bell Canada posted notices asking people to stay off the phone lines to save calls for emergencies.
Drama ensued at the local post office where, the newspaper reported, rules about doing business quickly and not lingering in the rotunda were being ignored. The paper warned if the rules continued to be flouted, “drastic measures will be resorted to.”
Work began nearly immediately to prepare for an influx of flu patients in Collingwood.
Collingwood women volunteered to form a local branch of the Ontario Emergency Volunteer Health Auxiliary which included chairperson Mrs. David Williams and secretary Miss F.A. Redmond, as well as about 40 other women including nurse Miss Dawson, and a doctor’s wife, Mrs. Arthur.
One of their first tasks was to hold classes for volunteer nurses at the Huron Institute with Miss Dawson doing the demonstrating.
Work also began setting up a temporary hospital with a call out for nurses, donations of cots, blankets and furnishings, and a possible location at the YMCA. Dawson was also overseeing registrations for hospital donations and volunteers via the Empire Theatre or by telephone no. 200. Nurse Dawson stored some of the community donations of supplies in her apartment above the Empire Theatre (now the Gayety Theatre).
The emergency hospital ended up at the Parish Hall of All Saints’ Anglican Church (32 Elgin Street).
The emergency auxiliary used a local technical school as a base of operations to train new nurses, plan for the temporary hospital, and even make soups for those who are sick.
Soon after, ads in the local newspaper stated more assistance in nursing was absolutely necessary. The ads called for help at the emergency hospital.
“Help by giving part time to the relief of your suffering and stricken neighbours,” pleaded the ad, noting it was possible a volunteer could help save a life. “The situation is too serious to be overlooked.”
The ad also promised workers would be paid.
Other ads and articles recommended wearing surgical masks, but also noted doubts about their effectiveness.
On Oct. 31, a newspaper article stated there were 20 cases of the Spanish Flu in Nottawa, nine of which were in one family. On the same day, the Bulletin reported “several hundreds” of citizens were sick all at the same time.
The business community also stepped in to help where called upon.
Another article announced local merchants had donated toys for the two hospitals to give to children at the hospital. The article quoted a nurse who said “it was a sight to see the kiddies asleep with their dolls in their arms.” The Bulletin newspaper continued to collect toy donations for kids who were hospitalized with the flu.
An article published late October, 1918, ran with the headline, “Help, Send Help.” It stated new cases have emerged and those caring for the sick are falling ill themselves or are overtaxed.
“The seriousness of the present time is the number of cases in which pneumonia has developed,” states the article, urging anyone who is able to join the emergency corps and help at both the General and Marine and the emergency hospital.
On Nov. 10, Dr. Smale of Stayner reportedly succumbed to the flu ten days after his colleague Dr. Johnston also died of the flu.
“He took ill on the 23rd of October with influenza followed by pneumonia, a strenuous fight being made for his life,” stated a newspaper article. “Drs McKay and McFaul of Collingwood attended him and consulted a specialist who came from Toronto to see him, but without avail.”
Smale’s wife also became ill while caring for him, but the article notes she was “doing as well as could be expected.”
Another article announced the death of a 12-year-old girl named Minnie, the elder daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Robbins of Birch Street. She died of pneumonia after contracting influenza.
In two years (1918 to 1919) 20 to 40 million people died of the flu.
A children’s rhyme at the time indicated the impact the flu had on the global population.
“I had a little bird, Her name was Enza, I opened the window, and in-flu-enza.”
In Canada, the virus is estimated to have claimed the lives of 50,000 people. In Ontario, 300,000 cases and 8,705 deaths were recorded. But medical facilities were overwhelmed, and it’s possible - some say certain - many fatalities went unreported.
A newspaper article run in Collingwood (and in several other community newspapers across the countries) during the outbreak suggested it was “universally agreed by all well-informed persons” that the best prevention against the Spanish Flu was tip-top physical condition.
“It’ is possible to perfect the powers of resistance of the human system so that it can throw off almost any infection, not excepting Spanish Influenza, which is one of the most contagious diseases known.”
The article recommended Tanlac, which it said possessed “the most valuable tonic properties known to science.” Tanlac was supposed to “restore health and strength,” and apparently “fully supported by recognized authorities.”
But it was not.
Tanlac was an elixir made mostly of wine, and by 1918 several scientific articles of the day had indicated it was not what it purported to be. In fact, the Journal of American Medical Association in 1916 described Tanlac as the “sky-rocket in the pyrotechnics of fakery.”
Looking back at Spanish Flu’s impact shows the opposite was true. The Spanish Flu caused immune reactions that led to respiratory distress in previously healthy people. They succumbed not to just pneumonia, but to hemorrhagic pulmonary oedema (bodily fluid in the lungs).
On Nov. 7, 1918, the Collingwood Enterprise reported “the crest is passed” stating the Spanish Flu epidemic was now under control and no new cases reported in three days. There were, at that time, 40 cases of people with the flu hospitalized at the temporary hospital, and approximately 50 at the General and Marine Hospital.
“A general survey of the conditions that surround the influenza epidemic that have been so strenuous during the past two weeks, leads to the conclusions that the crisis is passed and the plague is abating,” stated the article. “Still, there have been nine deaths during the past week, but that was perhaps to be expected.”
By November 14, 1918, a newspaper ad placed by F.B. Gregory, the librarian, announced the library would reopen on Friday afternoon as soon as it was fumigated. Those with borrowed books were asked to return them promptly so they could be included in the fumigation.
Another ad in the same paper indicated Empire and Lyric theatres would be re-opening Friday night.
On November 21, The Bulletin proclaimed “Collingwood in Full Swing: Victory has Come to Our Arms and the Flu has Passed.” Dr. Donald McKay gave notice the order prohibiting public meetings was, at last, revoked.
CollingwoodToday thanks both Collingwood Public Library and Collingwood Museum for contributing the research for this article, including a previous article written by former Museum Manager Anita Miles in 2003 for the Enterprise Bulletin.