The Spanish Influenza

The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 here and abroad

 When your eyes begin to water
and your nose turns blue,
if your lips begin to quiver,
then you've got the Spanish Flu.

Just as World War I, the “War to End All Wars”, was coming to an end in 1918, another previously unknown killer, more destructive than all the four years of the war itself, was raging worldwide. To get an idea of the virulence of this new killer compared to World War I:   The war lasted four years.  The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I itself was more than 41 million: there were over 18 million deaths and 23 million wounded, ranking World War I among the deadliest conflicts in human history. The total number of deaths includes about 11 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians.

By comparison, the so-called Spanish Influenza, the deadliest pandemic in modern history,  claimed more victims in a few months than the war did in four years.  The epidemic involved three waves of the disease, the most deadly being the second.  All three waves were over within a period of twelve months in any one country.  The Flu infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide–about one-third of the planet’s population at the time.  The 1918 flu is estimated to have killed between 20 million and 50 million people, but not all deaths would have been reported.  Many countries kept no medical statistics for flu, and in some places physicians were not required to report influenza cases to their boards of health.  New estimates suggest that the death toll may have been as high as 100 million people.  Fatality rates were more than 2.5%, compared to less than 0.1% in other influenza epidemics.  

The 1918 flu was first observed in the U.S. and parts of Asia before swiftly spreading to Europe and around the world. Most influenza strains affect the weakest members of the population:  the very old and the very young. Paradoxically, many of 1918’s “Spanish Flu” victims were young otherwise healthy adults between the ages of 20 to 40, including soldiers who had survived terrible odds in the trenches and battlefields. Because of military censorship, the actual infection rate among Allied soldiers was a closely guarded secret.  The first newspaper reports of the outbreak emerged from neutral Spain, a non-combatant country not subject to wartime censorship.  As a result, the pandemic was dubbed the “Spanish Flu” by the North American media and public.  In Britain the disease had been called 'Flanders Grippe'; in Spain, 'Naples soldier'; in Germany, 'Blitz Katarrh,' or lightning cold; and in Switzerland, 'La Coquette,' because it 'passed its favours around so freely.'  In Poland it was the 'Bolshevik Disease,' and in Ceylon it was 'Bombay Fever.' In Hong Kong, it was termed 'too much inside sickness.'

In 1918, the medical profession did not know what caused Spanish flu. And because it did not know the cause, it did not know how to prevent the disease. At the time, there were no effective drugs or vaccines to treat this killer flu strain or prevent its spread.   Doctors rightly assumed that the disease could be spread through the air by coughing or sneezing. Therefore many governments at all levels and on all continents enforced the closure of public areas where people might come into close contact with one another.   Dance halls, schools, theatres, libraries and other public places, including churches, were closed. Some churches did remain open, but their ministers were cautioned to refrain from spitting from the pulpit. People were ordered to wear masks and laws were even passed imposing heavy fines on those who spat in the streets or sneezed in public.   In New York City, signs were posted to announce 'It is Unlawful to Cough and Sneeze' and warned of a $500 fine or a year in jail.  The New York City health commissioner tried to slow the transmission of the flu by ordering businesses to open and close on staggered shifts to avoid overcrowding on the subways.

Canada lost between 30,000 and 50,000 people. Fourteen thousand perished in Quebec. In Montreal, the demand for transporting coffins was so great that trolley cars had to be converted to hearses which could carry ten coffins at a time. Eight cabinet-makers worked around the clock in Hamilton, Ontario, to keep up with the demand for coffins.

Origin and Spread of the Disease

Traditionally,  historians report that the soldiers brought the flu home with them when they returned from the battlefields of Europe.  M. Humphries argues, however (The Horror at Home: The Canadian Military and the “Great” Influenza Pandemic of 1918, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 16(1), 235-260), that the disease was spread by infected American soldiers arriving in Europe from training camps such as the one in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and by delegates to a Eucharistic congress in Quebec.     In the United States,  many Polish immigrants were eager to fight for the Allied cause against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  President Woodrow Wilson sanctioned the recruitment of a Polish Army financed by France and trained in Canada.  The Polish Camp at Niagara-on-the-Lake was one of the first places in Canada to report a flu epidemic from sick soldiers arriving there from various infected locations in the northeastern U.S.  Boston was the recruitment centre for the Polish Army.  Infected soldiers recruited in Boston would have been transported via New York Central/Michigan Central Railways to southern Ontario.

From camps such Niagara’s, soldiers, including some who were already suffering from influenza, were transported to the war front in Europe with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and westward with the Siberian Expeditionary Force in the weeks before the most deadly second wave broke out.  In the fall of 1918, Canada and the US were sending soldiers to Europe as quickly as possible; they reduced training times, sent conscripted soldiers to the front and filled troopships leaving from Montreal and Quebec City with American soldiers from the eastern seaboard.  Most troopships were not well equipped to deal with influenza: troopship hospitals were small and did not have adequate medical supplies.  Living, sleeping and eating quarters on the ships as well as in the camps, were cramped and shared.  The overall wartime conditions of rapid transportation, over-crowded training camps, troop trains and ships, and the horrible conditions of trench warfare on the front all contributed to the pandemic.

From the training camps it would be easy for the disease to spread to the wider population. Before quarantine was imposed, soldiers were permitted to obtain visitors passes to leave the camp, spend time in the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, and circulate within the camp at recreation centres such as the YMCA tent.   Niagara-on-the-Lake was one of the first places in Canada to experience the pandemic.  The first civilian death was recorded September 19,  just one day after the first soldier death at the Polish Camp.  By the end of that month the flu was reported at the Royal Air Force Armament School in West Hamilton, and from there to the civilian population of Hamilton. 

The weather may also have had an effect on the advancement of the disease.  The fall of 1918 was unseasonably cold with frequent heavy rain; September’s weather contrasted considerably with August’s, in which temperatures and humidity reached an all-time high. War industry drew thousands of rural people from the countryside into large urban centres, and thousands of farmers were conscripted when farmers’ exemptions were cancelled in April, 1918, due to conscription. People crowded together inside to escape the miserable weather; they were war weary from the length of the ongoing war and anxious about family members overseas and conscription.  Prices were inflationary, there were coal shortages, food shortages, farm labour shortages and malnutrition.    All these contributed to a depressed immune response to influenza and helped the disease to spread among the civilian population.

Effect on Society

The impacts on society were much the same as those imposed by the war itself: there was social and economic disruption.   Since the virus was especially deadly among young, healthy adults in their 20s and 30s, thousands of children were left orphaned, and many families lost their main wage earner. Throughout the world, losses to businesses were staggering.  Businesses lost money because people couldn’t afford to buy their products.  Stores could not hold sales, customers were too ill to shop, and companies saw sharp reductions in their workforce as more and more people became ill.

Effect on Niagara Falls

The experience of Niagara Falls was much the same as other centres its size.  Newspapers of the day do not refer to the pandemic very much, possibly to avoid causing a panic over the severity of the situation.  There was a dramatic increase in the number of obituaries in the Niagara Falls Review in October, 1918 compared to the same period the year before.  Interestingly enough, the obituaries in the fall of 1918 never mention the cause of death.  Funeral records from Morse & Son Chapel on Main Street indicate that where October 1917 experienced 14 funerals, two from influenza, October 1918 had 77 from the flu.  Morse’s records list the ages and causes of death of the deceased as well, showing an overwhelming number of victims of influenza/pneumonia between the ages of 20 and 40.  Numbers of victims decreased in November and December, 1918, but still remained high.  The city had two funeral homes at the time; we assume Russnell’s, for which we have no records, experienced similar figures.  In all it is estimated (Francis Petrie, “Flu killed 150 residents during pandemic in 1918,” Niagara Falls Review, April 2, 1976) that one percent of the population of 12,000 to 15,000 residents succumbed to the Spanish flu.

As in most cities and towns across the country, Niagara Falls’ churches, schools lodges, theatres, clubs were closed down for several weeks and no public meetings were held. A notice from the city’s Board of Health appeared in the  Review ordering all cases of “the grippe” to be reported to the Medical Officer of Health.  Any place where a case was discovered would have to be fumigated.  People were afraid to go out in public and avoided contact with crowds as much as possible; some wore gauze masks over their faces whenever they ventured outdoors so as not to catch the disease.  Work on the  hydro canal never stopped during the crisis even though it was hampered by the absenteeism due to sickness.    Hospitals all over the Niagara Peninsula were overcrowded with flu victims.  The Jepson Street Baptist Church, now the Christian Reformed Church, was pressed into service as an emergency flu hospital – its basement was on the ground level and it was large enough for several beds – to take some of the burden away from the overcrowded city hospital a short way down the street.  The Black Mariah, the horse-drawn hearse, was in constant demand; most of those who died of the flu were buried in a special section in Fairview Cemetery.

Newspaper advertisements directed people how they could lessen their symptoms, recommending grippe pills, cherry bark, and analgesic balm.  It was suggested that they fumigate spaces with formaldehyde candles, use germicidal soap and Listerine oil, eucalyptus and carbolic acid.

By November, here in Niagara Falls, the worst of the crisis had apparently passed.  A notice in the Review advised that the Jepson Street Church was properly fumigated and was open again for services.  The Board of Health let the schools reopen.  In the midst of all the turmoil, November 11 happened, the day World War 1 ended.   Huge victory parades and thanksgiving services still took place to celebrate the Allied victory.  Descriptions of these events indicate that people were not too afraid to mingle with others in crowded conditions for such a celebration.

End of the Pandemic

By the summer of 1919, the flu pandemic came to an end, as those that were infected either died or developed immunity.  In Canada the federal Department of Health Act was passed in 1919 because the epidemic had shown that the country was unable to deal with crises like this on a national level.  The International Red Cross extended its programmes to peacetime activities.  More funds became available to expand hospitals and educate nurses.

Spanish flu raged in every continent except Antarctica. It infected over half the world's population.  It erupted during the final stages of World War I, when governments were already trying to deal with the effects and costs of war by issuing restrictions and rations.   The mood of the people was already one of compliance with restrictive measures.  The needs of the nation came first, whether in the form of rationing or conscription, so they were more willing to deal with the additional loss of freedom that went with prevention of influenza. The war also gave science greater importance as governments relied on scientists to come up with methods of helping with disease and battle wounds.  Their new technologies would preserve men on the front and ultimately save the world.  The medical and scientific communities developed new theories and applied them to prevention, diagnostics and the treatment of influenza patients.


Kandace L. Bogaert, Casualties of War?  An Ethnographic Epidemiology of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Among Soldiers in Canada, McMaster University, Hamilton ON

Dr. Kirsty Duncan, “Hunting the 1918 Flu,” Globe & Mail Updated March 29, 2017,

M. Humphries, “The Horror at Home:  the Canadian Military and the “Great” Influenza Pandemic of 1918”, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 16 (1) 235-260,

Pat Sullivan, “More Deadly Than the War Itself,” The Legion: Canada’s Military Magazine, January 1, 2001.

Mike Zettel, “Polish Camp Played Unique Role in Canadian History,” Niagara-on-the-Lake Town Crier, November 11, 2017.

“Influenza:  Surviving the Spanish Lady,”


“The Influenza Pandemic of 1918,”

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