The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20 was a traumatic event that killed far more people in two years than died from 1914 to 1918 on the killing fields of the First World War.
Public health reporting was primitive 100 years ago. But in early April, the Washington Post reported that Spanish flu infected as many as 500 million world-wide – a quarter of the global population – while killing as many as 50 million, making it the deadliest pandemic in history.
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Most all of the civilized world was affected. The first reports of the respiratory illness date to January 1918. The first indications it was a problem in Norfolk County arise in mid-October of that year when residents began taking ill in large numbers.
On Oct. 17, 1918, The Simcoe Reformer acknowledged that “in common with the rest of the world, Simcoe is in the grip of the so-called Spanish flu.” Earlier that day, the town’s board of health heard that 400 people in Simcoe were sick. None of the cases, however, was deemed “dangerous.”
The same article, however, said local physicians were “in desperate straits to keep up with their work,” adding the pathogen had incapacitated three of them.
Dr. Arthur Sihler, a dentist and the mayor of Simcoe at the time, chaired the board of health meeting. The board ordered a number of social-distancing measures that included the closure of Simcoe’s churches, schools, the library, the Lyric Theatre on Kent Street, and “the pool rooms.”
Responding to reports that dozens were gravely ill with no one to tend to them, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows offered their building on Robinson Street as an infirmary. The community had to improvise as Norfolk General Hospital on West Street didn’t open till 1925.
A decision was made instead to establish an infirmary in Norfolk House, which later became known as the Norfolk Hotel and then the Norfolk Inn. The infirmary was organized by Simcoe Coun. Henry Crabb to much public acclaim.
Prior to the pandemic, The Reformer made vague reference to outbreaks of illness, among them an occasional case of typhoid. But afterward, the “flu” and “la grippe” were a recurring theme.
The progress of the respiratory infection – an aggressive strain of H1N1 influenza – was chronicled in subsequent months in the pages of The Reformer. The swath it cut can be tracked in the social notes filed from every crossroads community in the county.
In an opinion piece published on Oct. 24, 1918, Reformer proprietor Hal B. Donly upbraided the Anglican Bishop of Hamilton for grousing that authorities in Ontario had closed the churches but not the factories and shops.
“The good Bishop would have been wiser to have kept quiet,” wrote Donly. “He has only drawn sharper attention to the fact that – in the greatest disease scourge that has visited Canada in 70 years – the churches, in public opinion, fall short of being considered essential.
“Our own idea is that one good hospital would outweigh them all.”
On the same editorial page, The Reformer apologized for the poor quality of that day’s paper, pointing out that the office had been closed that week due to staff sickened by the “epidemic.” Were it not under pressure to run advertisements for Victory Bonds, The Reformer said it would not have published that week.
As for the temporary hospital at Norfolk House, it opened Oct. 20 under the leadership of a nurse and volunteer staff from the St. John Ambulance. A total of 25 cots were occupied by gravely ill citizens, two of whom died the first day.
“One nurse of experience said that never had she seen so many sick people in such a suffering condition at once as there were housed there last Saturday,” The Reformer reported.