The 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic in Eastern Nova Scotia

This article, published in the Fall 2020 edition of The Beacon, was written by Kathleen M. MacKenzie, Archivist.

The origin of the 1918-19 Influenza Epidemic is hotly debated. It did not originate in Spain. Some believe that the first cases occurred in China in 1917-1918. They believe it spread from China to North America, to Europe, to Africa and back again. Some think that the first cases were seen in February 1918 at a military camp in Haskell County, Kansas. Within three weeks 1100 soldiers had contracted it. By mid-April 1918 French and British armies were afflicted by the disease. Others believe that its origins can be traced to Camp Devens near Boston, MA during the first week of September 1918 where 45,000 men were training for overseas action. Approximately 12,500 men were infected and by the end of the month 780 died. What can be agreed upon is that there were three outbreaks: the first being in Spring 1918, the second Autumn 1918, and the last in the Winter 1918-1919. Some locations experienced outbreaks into 1920. The second wave proved the deadliest and caused the most deaths. Overall, the epidemic killed approximately 50 million people worldwide and was a global disaster.

The epidemic killed approximately 50 million people worldwide and was a global disaster

The first deaths in Nova Scotia were reported by 1 September 1918 when nine people died at Belle Cote, Inverness County. Ten days later a death was reported at Beechville, Halifax County. On 22 September 1919, 500 infected American soldiers landed in Sydney. Deaths were reported in Yarmouth as the disease was spread by American fishermen from Glouchester, MA. It was clear the disease was spreading rapidly. By 29 September 1919 three ships’ crews were found infected in Halifax Harbour. By early October eight sailors were hospitalized in Cogswell Street Military Hospital and in Petit de Grat cases appeared among fishermen there. On 2 October 1918 the provincial health officer, Dr. William H. Hattie issued a statement detailing the symptoms and treatment of the disease. In a short time, there were 64 cases in Halifax. An ad was placed in Halifax newspapers calling for nurses to come work in the city. In October 1918 there were 482 deaths from the flu in Nova Scotia. From October 1918-December 1918 there were approximately 1200 deaths. In January 1919 there was a sharp decline to 150 deaths. In total Nova Scotia experienced 1785 deaths from the flu epidemic which was assessed to be 3.4 deaths per 1000 people. The highest death rates in Canada were in Quebec, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

Halifax closed all its public meeting places and imposed restrictions to prevent crowds on tram cars

A study of the local Antigonish newspaper, The Casket, gives one an idea of how the 1918-19 Influenza Epidemic was viewed and how it affected this area. Little has been written about the pandemic in Nova Scotia. I have examined 10 months of the newspaper, from September 1918 to June 1919, to determine what transpired. Nothing was reported regarding the pandemic in the newspaper in the month of September 1918. In the 3 October 1918 issue, it was stated that several deaths had occurred at Sydney, NS and that the schools, theatres, and public places of assemblage were closed. The Department of Public Heath of Nova Scotia had issued a bulletin on 2 October 1918. It gave a description of the disease and the symptoms. The following week on 10 October 1918 it gives notice that deaths were very high in Massachusetts. Halifax closed all its public meeting places and imposed restrictions to prevent crowds on tram cars. It stated that St. Martha’s Hospital was overcrowded with 73 patients, which was a record since its opening. The Casket called for the enforcement of the provincial regulations by all local boards of health, that quarantining was required, and that visitors were visiting those sick with the disease. It was also noted that it was the public’s moral duty to quarantine. It also published the sanitary regulations, Section 6 of the Public Health Act, Chapter 6 of the Acts of 1918. Emphasis was on isolation for five days after recovery from the flu, disinfection, closure of schools, churches, and theaters, prohibition of unnecessary gatherings in stores or street corners, and lastly that doctors, nurses, and all others who “have influence over the people” were required to instruct the people to cooperate to prevent another epidemic. It instructed people to cover their mouths and noses, get plenty of sunlight and air, have proper ventilation, and recognize the prompt and thorough washing of hands. The following week on 17 October 1918 it reported that Sydney had 10 flu deaths and an isolation hospital which could accommodate 40 patients had been established there. The epidemic was running rampant throughout the United States and raged violently especially in Massachusetts. Toronto and Montreal were worse off from a week previous. Glace Bay had many cases although New Waterford had improved. Pictou County had cases, but the flu was not as virulent there and the local authorities had taken precautions and had closed all places where the public congregated. It noted that Halifax had 4 deaths in the last few days. Antigonish Town and County luckily experienced numerous mild cases. It was noted that doctors warned the public to avoid influenza patients and recommended their isolation.

The usual quarantine period of one week was not a very long time and that people owed it to themselves and to the public not to break quarantine

As well, people attending these patients should wear masks. On 16 October 1918, a meeting of the local board of health was held. Dr. John J. Cameron, the public health officer, recommended that until further notice all churches, schools, places of amusement, and restaurants were to be closed to the public. The Casket issue of a week later 24 October 1918 reported that the situation had grown worse. There were 150 cases in the town and county. Many had developed into pneumonia. The situation in Sydney seemed to be better but there was no improvement in Glace Bay. Halifax now had fewer cases. The death rate was decreasing in Montreal and Quebec City. It was anticipated there would be a decline in expected cases in a week or ten days. It noted that the largest number of cases was in Lockport with 300 cases and that medical and nursing aid was required from outside the village.

Ad from The Casket 31 October 1918

By the 31 October 1918 issue, Dr. Cameron reported that Antigonish Town and County had six acute cases and 20 convalescent cases. He noted the criticism that he had received from residents and that many of them would hide the fact that there had been an outbreak in their house to save from the inconvenience of quarantine. Many were under the unfounded suspicion that the flu epidemic was caused from lack of cleanliness and that it would bring dishonor upon them. He faulted them for having “a perfectly selfish and inhuman attitude”. He also brought morality into the situation and noted that the usual quarantine period of one week was not a very long time and that people owed it to themselves and to the public not to break quarantine. In this same article, he outlined the symptoms of the disease. Dr. Cameron curiously noted that some patients felt that they had contracted it from working in the soil, for example in digging trenches and potatoes. Others claimed that they had gotten it from the dust from a threshing-mill. He felt certain that sunlight and frost would stop its progress. By 21 November 1918, The Casket was reporting that there was an improvement in the Town of Antigonish. Unfortunately, in Tracadie there were three deaths and in a family of nine all were sick. It warned the public to take every necessary precaution in case of the danger of relapse. By the first week of December The Casket reported in its 5 December 1918 issue that the Town of New Glasgow had lifted its ban on holding public meetings and the disease had spread there. Sydney Mines reclosed its public places and forbade meetings of up to 10 people. In Havre Boucher, the schools were closed. An asymptomatic Baptist clergyman in Goshen contaminated 50 people after he preached to his congregation and visited some in their homes. One person had died from this contamination. Halifax had withdrawn its restrictions and now had many new cases. The 12 December 1918 issue reported that the public should expect several more months of danger and that the outcome would be determined by the public’s attitude. It again published guidelines issued by the Department of Public Health in regard to overcrowding, the sharing of drinking cups or eating utensils, the avoidance of excesses in eating and drinking, the importance of the proper ventilation of rooms, and the spending as much time as possible in the outdoors. The following week local officials were worried about the spread of the disease during the Christmas season. In the 19 December 1918 issue, The Casket, delivered a warning from public health officials:

Promiscuous visiting during the holidays, they say, will be a means of continuing and of creating a recurrence of the epidemic and they urge upon people generally the advisability of discouraging this custom just now.

The newspaper also made note that the Town of New Glasgow was urging inoculation and had purchased a supply of serum. It reported an additional five deaths in Tracadie. Heatherton and Frasers Grant were greatly affected and there was a severe outbreak in Mulgrave. There were 100 cases there as the public had encountered an infected crew from a schooner and the captain had died. The local bank closed as many staff were sick. The Casket reported in its 26 December 1918 issue that the United States Government had indicated thus far it had experienced 80,000 deaths in 46 cities. By that time this was more than the number of American soldiers killed during World War I. The disease was especially prevalent along the International Colonial Railway line from Tracadie to the Town of Antigonish. It was common for the one passenger car traveling that route to be overcrowded. Local officials complained about the carelessness of the people when visiting the sick and loitering around houses which was affected by the disease. Heatherton was especially affected. Some had died there and many more were sick. The newspaper advised the public to be much more vigilant and to wear a handkerchief over the nose and mouth when obliged to cough or sneeze.

The outcome would be determined by the public’s attitude

The Casket was silent regarding any new cases for the month of January 1919. It noted in its 6 February 1919 issue that three weeks previous the flu epidemic struck like a tornado in Margaree and it “fell on them with plague-like severity”. In a matter of three weeks 33 residents died. The first week of the outbreak saw 20 deaths and the remaining two weeks brought 13 more. All ages were affected, and it published some of the names of the victims. In the following issue, it reported that for a month there had not been any outbreaks in Antigonish Town and County but in one recent week five cases had been reported in Town. By 27 February 1919 15 cases alone had been reported in the west end of the Town of Antigonish. One young man perished. Other parts of town were also affected. Havre Boucher had 24 new cases. Linwood was also affected. Maryvale and the Ohio were experiencing very virulent cases. It warned that people acquiring colds should seek medical attention at once and not mix with the public. By 13 March 1919, the flu had entered a lumber camp in Tracadie, and one man died. The men had also worked in the East River-St. Mary’s-Melrose vicinity of Guysborough County. It appears that by April the flu epidemic had dwindled in the local area. Dr. Hattie, the provincial medical officer was invited to present a public lecture at the Celtic Hall in Antigonish on 29 April 1919. He called for the public to take an active part in public health. No mention was made of the flu epidemic at this time, however, The Casket was requesting the public to support the tuberculosis isolation hospital and sanatorium which was to be built in Antigonish. It is interesting to note that by June 1919 smallpox cases were reported in Pomquet, Lakevale, and Havre Boucher. At this time, even though it appeared as if the flu epidemic had been dealt with, other infectious and contagious diseases were still very much prevalent in the area.

It is obvious that each Nova Scotian community was affected by the disease in proportion to how much interaction there was between its residents and with outsiders. Wharves and harbours dotted along the coastline often brought in ill sailors and fishermen. Overcrowded tram cars and trains easily spread the disease as well. There appeared to be no consistent application of public health regulations across the province and cultural norms greatly influenced the spread of the disease. The customary hospitality shown to visitors and the visiting of the sick in eastern Nova Scotia undoubtedly greatly aided the spread. The publicized bulletins and instruction from public health officials appeared to have been limited in their effectiveness. One positive outcome of the flu epidemic was that, in 1919, the Nova Scotia Department of Health was reorganized for better efficiency. As well, that same year a federal department of health was established.

  • Sources:
    The Casket, September 1918-June 1919.
    Fahrni, Magda and Jones, Esylit W. (2012). Epidemic encounters: Influenza, society, and culture in Canada, 1918-20. UBC Press.
    Humphries, Mark Osborne. (2013). Paths of infection: The first world war and the origins of the 1918 influenza pandemic. War in History. 21 (1).
    The Medical History Society of Nova Scotia. (1 April 2013). The great influenza epidemic of 1918-1920: The Nova Scotia experience.
    Pettigrew, Eileen (1983). The silent enemy: Canada and the deadly flu of 1918. Western Producer Prairie Books.