By Brian Roulston
The First World War saw Great Britain mobilize almost nine million men and women for the first time against the German’s between 1914 and 1918. As one war was winding down, another war was just beginning. An unknown disease was claiming the lives of soldiers on and off the battlefield. Civilian lives were being taken in alarming numbers as well. Mostly young lives around 28 years old were affected, often dead within days, even hours of contracting the disease. Some suffered from a milder form of the disease and survived like Walt Disney, Gandhi and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Donald Trump’s paternal grandfather Friedrich Trump died from this disease.
Great Britain suppressed and destroyed any documentation about this disease out of fear the enemies would use it and there is very little information among Hamilton’s military records of the virus for this reason.
On May 22nd, 1918 it was first reported in Spain that a disease first called the “French” Flu was affecting 40% of its population. Spain originally blamed French railroad workers but later found out this wasn’t the case. Spaniard’s then started calling this unknown virus the “The Spanish Lady”. Because that news article originated in Spain, many incorrectly assumed this influenza started there and it became known as the Spanish Flu.
Since the year 1580 there have been 31 documented influenza pandemics up to the current Covid-19 pandemic. Since 1867 five, (six if you include the Coronavirus) pandemics have affected this country; The Russian Flu 1890 aka La Grippe, 1918 Spanish Flu, 1957 Asia Flu, and the Hong Kong Flu of 1968. It’s worth noting that most of those who contracted the Russian Flu were spared any suffering by the Spanish Lady. As a direct result of the Russian Flu, Ontario became the first province in Canada to have a permanent provincial board of health. At first it tried to downplay the disease by claiming it was less dangerous than the measles or Scarlet Fever but soon became overwhelmed with requests for information and guidance on this issue. It was left up to local health authorities to do what was necessary.
Also at this time the Federal Board of Health was in its planning stages.
In a population of close to 8 million people, 2 million cases of influenza, including military cases, went unreported. Influenza was not a reportable disease at the time as it seemed impractical and impossible to enforce strict quarantine rules. Many people suffered from a milder form of the virus and either survived or family members simply buried their dead and didn’t bother to report them. No one will ever know the true numbers of those who were infected.
The mortality rate from the Spanish Flu was nearly twenty times greater than a normal flu season. Towns and municipalities across Canada were hit hard. Villages in Labrador such as Hebron and Okak were wiped out. Morrisburg, Ontario was the only town in Canada to have 0 cases throughout Canada’s three waves of influenza. Guelph Township, Cornwall, and Renfrew each reported that 10% of their respective populations suffered from the Spanish Flu. Brantford is believed to have had 35% of its population infected. Kitchener, a manufacturing town, was hit hard over a one month period in October of 1918. Six Nations Reserve near Caledonia, much like today’s Covid-19 numbers so far, had extremely low numbers. Seven people of the reservations 808 inhabitants died. Hamilton is said to have had the lowest mortality rating among other major cities of comparable size such as Halifax, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.
You will notice striking similarities between the Spanish Flu and Covid-19 pandemic. Most strains of Influenza-A since 1918, can be genetically traced back to the Spanish flu. They are considered different diseases and have affected people differently. The Spanish flu has been suspected to have started in Spain, France and China. However there is strong evidence that it may have originated at Fort Funston, Kansas, and soldiers either passing through that base, visiting relatives, friends or other bases may have inadvertently helped spread the disease.
The first number of cases among the Hamilton area’s military was at a Polish camp aka The Siberian Expeditionary Force camp stationed near Niagara-On-the Lake. The Polish unit received training in the U.S before going through additional training here in Canada and were enroute to Vancouver B.C. Whether or not the Polish troops contributed to the disease coming into Hamilton itself is still being debated today.
Between November 1917 & April 1918 many Royal Air Force Cadets were sent to Texas for training along with thousands of other soldiers all across the United States. Between that and coming home, stopping at different bases along the way for meals and sleep; it’s thought the seeds of the Spanish Flu may have been planted. All that was needed was the right environment for the disease to flourish.
The first diagnosis of the Spanish Flu within Hamilton occurred at the RAF Armament School barracks located beside today’s McMaster’s Innovation Park. The building which still stands today once belonged to Westinghouse who provided the plant free of charge to the Canadian government. On September 30th forty-seven students became the first to be infected. The school’s clinic was too small, holding only twenty students. The overflow was sent to a military hospital located on King St. West. The camp was promptly put under quarantine and Dr. Roberts, Hamilton’s Medical Officer of Health was then consulted. Roberts did not see any reason to be alarmed that day. He simply thought the unusually warm, wet weather that year aided a normal flu virus.
By noon on October 1st there were 147 more cases. Druggists and doctors became alarmed as cold and flu remedies started flying off the shelves.
On Oct 3, 1918 Esther Hattie Warshofsky, 28 years old, became the first civilian to pass from influenza in Hamilton. Two days later her sister Daisy Harris died as well leaving behind her 5-year-old daughter. The following day at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Miss Marie Rose Bullman, a 22-year-old nurse, died a week after contracting the influenza while she was assisting patients. Dr. Clarence W. Graham, a 33-year-old physician & surgeon at The City Hospital and four other patients died within 24 hours of contracting the Spanish Flu.
A North Ender who lived on James Street North, Dr. Thomas Balfe, worked tirelessly with the hope of finding a vaccine for the Spanish Flu. Dr. Balfe worked tirelessly and when he was infected with the virus himself, he didn’t have the strength to fight it. It would be 17 years following Balfe’s death that the virus was finally isolated and an egg based vaccine was developed in 1935.
Four-hundred more cases, mostly school children, were reported in Hamilton. Dr. Roberts shut down all schools. Another week passed, Dr. Roberts now reported 600 more cases of influenza. He then ordered a total shutdown of stores, pool halls, theatres and churches in the Hamilton area. This however, did not sit well with the provincial health minister Dr. John McCullough who thought Roberts’s tactics were a bit too excessive. The next day the Police Magistrate ordered the courts off limits to outsiders.
Victory bonds were one way the Canadian government raised much-needed cash to fight the Germans during WWI. The government was heavily dependent on the money raised by Victory Loan campaigns across Canada. Because Roberts imposed a ban on public gatherings in Hamilton, a day of fundraising to be held Saturday, November 2 by the local Victory Loan committee was in jeopardy. This was to include a demonstration of a British tank used in Somme and three parades in various parts of the city. The Victory Loan people lobbied Dr. Roberts hard but he stood steadfast. Canadian Finance Minister Sir William T. White ordered Roberts via telegram, to allow the Victory Loan Day to proceed as planned. Roberts refused to budge. Against Robert’s orders, they went ahead with the festivities anyways. On November 11, Armistice Day, people again took to the streets in celebrations of the war’s end.
On the Monday following the Victory Loan parades, Dr. Roberts reported over 500 more cases.
During the first wave of the Spanish Flu, hospitals were stigmatized as dirty germ factories with poor to almost no service that still practiced old 18th-century medicine. These institutions were seen as a last resort for the poor, the homeless, and the working-class people. The rich could afford to stay home and be better cared for by family members, nurses, and their family doctors who routinely made house calls. The pandemic forced hospitals in Hamilton to reconsider their roles. What emerged was the new more modern era of hospitals that we often take for granted today. Hospitals were now cleaner, using the newest and most advanced technology of the time. The staff at these institutions were better informed and trained too.
Late into the second and into the third wave hospitals became a necessity. St. Joseph’s and The City Hospital (The General) quickly reached their limits during the pandemic. Temporary relief hospitals were established the former home of Robert Land, The Jockey Club Hotel, and Ballinahinch Mansion on James St. South. None of these relief hospital buildings exist today. Doctors and nurses openly praised the many volunteer groups for their efforts and services, which they believed did more to overcome the influenza epidemic in Hamilton than anything else. The Sisters of Service (S.O.S) provided many of the basic nurse’s services both in the hospital and in the home. A week after being founded, a hundred female volunteers answered the call. Two hundred women would eventually serve during the epidemic in Hamilton.
On October 19th, another volunteer group was founded, starting a “Diet Kitchen” which was put into service in the basement of The First Methodist Church. This group called the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE) produced food baskets with enough food for two days to those who were too sick to leave home. 200 volunteers worked around the clock 24/7 producing 5,228 baskets to 721 homes in addition to the 70,000 meals they prepared and delivered free of charge to those who were deathly ill. It gave them a fighting chance against the disease. The Jewish Women’s Association provided nursing, a ‘kosher’ diet kitchen and supplied the S.O.S with face masks to get them through the epidemic.
Teachers also volunteered their time with nursing, vital record-keeping and clerical work for the various volunteer groups. Once hospitals became more popular near the end of the second wave fewer volunteers were needed.