On Nov. 11th, 1918, Red Deer and much of the rest of the western world celebrated the end of the First World War. Tragically, just as that terrible conflict was coming to an end, people were facing one of the worst pandemics in history – the Spanish ’flu epidemic.
Despite its name, the Spanish ’flu actually had its origins in Kansas in the American Midwest.
Young American soldiers going overseas for the First World War carried the illness to Europe. Because of wartime censorship, the first press reports appeared in Spain, a neutral country. Hence the name, ‘Spanish ’flu’.
This frightening new form of influenza started off much like the common cold.
Initial symptoms were a cough and stuffy nose. Within a brief period of time, however, a very high fever set in with incredible aches in joints and muscles. Frequently, pneumonia followed, sometimes within a few hours.
All too often, the patient was soon dead.
Tragically, the ones most susceptible to the disease were those in their late teens, 20s and 30s.
In other words, the Spanish ’flu struck the hardest on the same age groups who had suffered terrible losses during the War.
The horrific conditions of the Western Front were ideal conditions for the spread of the disease. Soon, hundreds of thousands of young soldiers were infected. As the War drew to a close in the fall of 1918, the returning soldiers took the disease back home to North America with them.
The first cases in Alberta were recorded on Oct. 3rd when a troop train containing ill soldiers arrived in Calgary. Within five days, there were cases throughout Calgary and soon across the whole province.
The provincial Department of Health imposed stringent restrictions in order to slow the spread of the disease.
The wearing of ’flu masks was made compulsory. For those planning to travel by train, the C.P.R. refused to sell a ticket to anyone without a mask.
The newspapers were soon full of advice on how to keep from catching the ’flu and, if that was unsuccessful, what to do to treat it.
Some of the advice offered was practical; some was useless. People were advised to get lots of rest, eat nourishing food and to follow strict hygiene practices. Drugstores sold antiseptics to kill germs and aspirin which helped to control fevers. The sale of such patent medicines as ‘Fruit-a-tives’ had no therapeutic value at all.
The first case of the ’flu appeared in Red Deer on Oct. 23rd with a passenger who arrived on the train. Soon, there were several cases in the community.
Schools were quickly closed. Public meetings and church services were cancelled.
Quarantines were imposed at the homes of the sick as well as at such places as St. Joseph Convent and the Red Deer Indian Industrial School.
The old Mounted Police barracks on Victoria (43rd) Ave. were converted into a special isolation hospital to handle the very ill who needed hospitalization.
On Oct. 28th, Red Deer reported its first ’flu-related death. The man was William Werner, a local farmer and the father of 11 children. Soon, there were several more deaths as the disease began to take its rapid toll.
The doctors and all medical personnel worked incredible hours to deal with the sick.
School teachers and many others volunteered to help out. However, many of those who nursed the ill soon became ill themselves. Dr. Richard Parsons’ wife, Ella, came down with the ’flu and soon died, leaving him the single parent of four small children.
In early November, the epidemic seemed to ease.
Then, on Nov. 11th, large crowds assembled to celebrate the end of the War. Tragically, this mass outpouring of joy caused a renewed outbreak of the ’flu.
By early December, the great epidemic finally began to abate.
Public meetings were permitted again, although few people were willing to go out to them. The schools reopened after Christmas, but quickly had to be closed again when a number of students fell ill.
The ’flu finally seemed to disappear completely with the onset of spring.
The toll had been a heavy one. Fifty-four ’flu related deaths had been recorded in Red Deer. In Alberta, 4,300 people had died. World-wide, more people died from the ’flu than had been killed in the War.