Alex Zimmerman

Alex Zimmerman

How Spanish Flu 1918-20 Affected My Family – As Recorded in my Grandfather’s Journal

Spanish Flu in Canada

One hundred years ago, about this time of year, the 1918-20 Spanish Flu pandemic was finally winding down. It came in waves, was highly infectious and had a high fatality rate. Canada wasn’t spared. As noted on a Government of Canada website: “The virulent Spanish flu, a devastating and previously unknown form of influenza, struck Canada hard between 1918 and 1920. This international pandemic killed approximately 55,000 people in Canada, most of whom were young adults between the ages of 20 and 40.” And “It came in multiple waves. The first wave took place in the spring of 1918, then in the fall of 1918, a mutation of the influenza virus produced an extremely contagious, virulent, and deadly form of the disease. This second wave caused 90% of the deaths that occurred during the pandemic. Subsequent waves took place in the spring of 1919 and the spring of 1920.”

Given the current COVUD-19 pandemic, I got to thinking about how the Spanish Flu might have impacted my family back then. I wondered if and how hard our family had been touched by it. My mother was born after it was over and she didn’t relate any stories about the Spanish Flu that I can recall. However, my maternal Grandfather homesteaded in Saskatchewan in 1906 and he kept a daily journal, starting the summer before, on a land-scouting trip, and continuing until his death in 1949. I have a copy of that journal. Much of it is pretty mundane stuff – a record of work done on the farm that day, the weather and so on, but there are some interesting bits buried in it. In particular, I got to wondering if the impact of the Spanish Flu shows up in his journal.  

I didn’t find any references in the spring or summer of 1918 to any illness, but there is an entry on September 22nd that reads “Ida and Margaret have Grippe”. Ida was my Grandmother’s name and Margaret was my Mother’s older sister. Grippe of course is the old word for influenza, not used much anymore. September is an unusual time for seasonal flu. That usually starts later in the fall and lasts through to spring. So, this may, or may not, have been the Spanish flu but the timing is right.

The next entry is Sunday October 20th: “Sunday – very fine and warm. To school but no church or Sunday School. Decided to close school 2 weeks owing to spread of flu”. This is very likely to have been the Spanish Flu.

Next entry was the following Sunday the 27th: “Sunday – very fine. At home. Baby sick all day”. That would be my Uncle Allan, who was born in May of 2018.

Then, November 1st: “Exceedingly fine. Spent day in bed – appear to have return of flu.” He doesn’t mention in his journal when he had it before but he must have had it previously if this was a return. He was bedridden for 3 days before he was up and about.

No new entries about the flu for another week, but then, within the space of a week, all the rest of his six children become sick, with one of my uncles being listed as “very sick”.

And that is the last entry of anyone being sick in the fall.  Although we can’t be sure it was the Spanish Flu, the timing was right. All the kids were young, thankfully – the oldest, my Uncle Alex (after whom I am named) would only have been eight – so they wouldn’t have been in the most susceptible age bracket, but it sounds like everyone in the family, my Grandma and Grandpa included, got it.

But that wasn’t the end of the flu. The following April, 1919, there are more references to flu:

April 28th: “Fine and warm. Gordon sick last night and today” Gordon was one of my Uncles.

Also April 28th: “fine and mild. Down to Hayunga’s on Gordon’s case and got medicine. Dr. promised to come in morning. Think Gordon has flu – temp. 103 degrees.”

April 29th: “Fine and warm. Gordie some better. Started sowing wheat”

April 30th: “Cooler – W.N.  Gordie very sick again last night. Other children also not well. Sowing wheat.” 

More entries regarding illness among the children a few days later:

May 2nd: “Children all some better except Alex who is not well today”

May 3rd: “Alex in bed”

May 4th: Margaret and Willie fevered. Gordie up.”

Was this flu in April a return of the Spanish Flu? It might have been. The original 1918 strain has been recovered from flu victim’s bodies buried in Alaskan permafrost and the virus has been reconstructed, sequenced and studied. However, we know that flu viruses mutate fairly rapidly and it could be that the flu the kids caught in spring of 1919 was a mutated version of the 1918 flu, or it could have been a strain of regular seasonal flu.

Now it doesn’t seem that this current COVID-19 pandemic has nearly the fatality rate of the Spanish Flu. Modern estimates figure that in that pandemic one hundred years ago somewhere between 1-6% of the entire world population died, but we will never know for certain. That same rate today applied to this pandemic would kill between 378 thousand and 2¼ million people just in Canada, which seems unlikely based on trends to date.

What those series of entries in my Grandfather’s journal really bring home to me is that my Grandmother, Grandfather and young Aunts and Uncles were all lucky to have escaped. Or perhaps it was not all luck. My Grandmother’s nursing skills likely played a big part. She was considered a go-to person in the early days of the district before there were any doctors. It must have been a very worrisome time, as it is now, but even more so, given the high fatality rate. It gives me a renewed sense of kinship with them, that family of a century ago.

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