The Highlands Fights the Spanish Flu 1918-19

kids in flu garbDuring the COVID-19 crisis, in lieu of in-person events, HHS will be publishing material on-line. Last spring, Ken Tingley gave this talk as part of our speaker series. At the time, we had no idea that this talk would be SO applicable! As you read this, we suggest you put yourself in the position of someone living in Edmonton, late in the year 1918. There is no end in sight. After you are done,  think about similarities and differences between then and now. (The first human trials of a COVID 19 vaccine started the week of March 15!)

A hundred years ago the city of Edmonton was hit by the deadly Spanish influenza pandemic.  The Highlands would be thrown into this human tragedy, and would be required to undertake an unusual and disastrous enemy: the flu.

On 30 September 1918 Miss Myrtle Carpenter, sister of W.G. Carpenter, Superintendent of the Edmonton Public School Board, died while treating Spanish influenza patients at Camp Syracuse, New York.  When news of this reached Edmonton, it shocked friends and neighbours, but would be just the first of many city flu victims who would die in the next months.

In early October at least 20,000 cases were reported in US military camps, and 300 in the Royal Air Force camps in Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario. News soon followed of the spread of the disease in Vermont and the first cases in the general population of Toronto.

By 13 September 1918, 113,737 cases had already been reported in the United States, where the pandemic had broken out and was rapidly spreading.  Also at the beginning of October the flu hit Montreal and St. John’s military camps. And it was reported that the first cases had reached Alberta on a westbound train in Calgary. In 2 October a trainload of soldiers became infected en route from Quebec City to Vancouver  A telegram warned the Calgary Medical Health Officer, who met the train in the early morning hours and took 15 men into isolation at Sarcee Camp.  However the disease began to spread outside the isolation hospital almost immediately.

The rapid diffusion of the disease hit eastern and central Canada quickly, and the Toronto General Hospital was reported “crowded out” on 7 October.

But no flu cases had hit Edmonton by 10 October.  The following day the Alberta Board of Health released a bulletin to doctors regarding flu symptoms.  Provincial nurses were recalled to Edmonton to be trained for the coming challenge. Many doctors and medical staff were still overseas treating the wartime casualties there.  Much of the work in meeting the challenge would be met by Edmonton women volunteers, who saw this duty as doing their bit for the war.  Most of the men involved contributed in organization and moving supplies; men’s work.  Women still were viewed as providing care-giving, provision of meals, and other traditional “maternal” duties.

Dr. W.A. Smith was one local doctor who would rise to the challenge.  He served the nearby packing plants and coal mines, although his office was located downtown.  He made regular house calls during the Spanish flu outbreak, and was especially vigilant of children quarantined with diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, and other diseases emerging among the weakened population.  He would open his door for night emergencies, and was beloved by his patients.  He was Conservative MLA 1930-1935.


Influenza and pneumonia also were declared “notifiable diseases” on 10 October. Alarming accounts of the rapid spread of flu in the US, Ontario and the Canadian West Coast became common in the newspapers.  By 17 October the local newspapers were full of Spanish flu news.  Although there still were no Edmonton cases reported, most people feared the coming pandemic.  Despite the panic in some ranks of citizens, there were complaints of a certain complacency as well, but most felt the disease closing in on them from the south, east and west.  Twenty cases were reported in Taber, while many St. John Ambulance Brigade volunteers came forward across the province.

The following day the Board of Health decided that it would close schools, churches and theatres on 18 October. Ninety new cases were reported in Lethbridge on this date.

The flu hit Edmonton heavily at this time, with 41 cases reported by 19 October; 17 patients were being quarantined and assisted in Athabasca Hall at the University of Alberta.  Volunteer Auxiliary (VAD) nurses were issued uniforms. There was some initial confusion about what really constituted influenza; some doctors even denied that they were dealing with “true cases” of flu.  They felt it much more in common with grippe or ordinary influenza, with which most people were long familiar.  Its rapid and deadly contagion had not yet become as widespread in the city.  Some patients had a mild form, and rushed back to work too soon; a secondary wave hit the city when these weakened victims suffered a relapse.  Spanish flu did not even require quarantine until 16 October when Sections 22 and 23 of the Health Act were amended to add this disease.

Advertisements began to appear touting patent medicines, with a population beginning to panic, and medical personnel admitting lack of knowledge on the cause or treatments for flu. An editorial in the Edmonton Morning Bulletin observed in late October: “It is a fact that there is a great deal of groping in the dark, both as to preventative and remedial measures.”  Fruit-a-tives put out their first ads in Edmonton, promising its power to help users to resist the disease.  Another ad urged people to “Prevent the ‘Flu’ by wearing Dr. Chase’s Menthol Bag.”

These bags are pinned on the chest outside of the underwear, and the heat from the body causes the menthol fumes to rise and mingle with air you breathe, thereby killing the germs….

Larvine, available at Alberta Taxidermy Company, also was advertised to treat the flu.  On 1 November J.J. Murray and Company recommended that warm formaldehyde be left on kitchen stoves as a preventative.

By 21 October there were over a hundred reported confirmed flu cases in the city, not counting many who did not wish to report.  Many Edmontonians were reported wearing masks by this time, especially on streetcars, trains and at public places downtown.  A severe nursing shortage was by now limiting treatment.  “The first of many “How to Make a Mask” public service ads appeared, and the city sent out folders on this subject to residents in the Highlands and other residential areas. By order of the Alberta Minister of Health, masks were required on public transport as of 24 October.  All Albertans had to wear masks whenever outside their homes after 26 October.  Many made their own gauze masks, and Kay’s were manufacturing them in Edmonton for a dime each. Soon people were being fined for not wearing masks.

By 24 October Pembina Hall was also operating as a flu hospital, as was the South Hall Hospital on 107th Street opposite the Legislature. Schools were used as nursing stations and nursing residences shortly after.  Highlands School would serve this purpose too, located as it was in one of three districts, including King Edward Park and the Technical School east of 101st Street.

Highlands District No. 6 served a large area in east Edmonton and the “packing plant region….,” east of the Edmonton Exhibition Grounds and the CNR tracks. Mayor H.M.E. Evans admitted that in the face of increasingly overwhelming challenges : “We are throwing the work on the district committees….”

Rev. Arthur W. Coone convened the Highlands committee meeting, and would chair it for the duration of the epidemic.  Rev. Coone was an active Highlands volunteer, serving on the community league, and political committees such as the East Edmonton Municipal Association.  He also advocated for provision of the first church, Highlands Methodist Church, using his influence with W.J. Magrath.  His wife was elected the first president of the Women’s Missionary Society.  For awhile the Coone residence at 6424, would serve as headquarters for the flu resistance, after the school was filled with infected sufferers.


Rev. Frank D. Roxburgh served as committee secretary.  Rev. Roxburgh was pastor at Grierson Presbyterian Church.  On 28 October there were 24 flu cases reported in ten homes in the Highlands.  As the flu spread and entire households were incapacitated through the Highlands, door-to-door care was supplemented by visiting nurses and a central kitchen.

When the Highlands Relief Committee met on 28 October it decided to request that the Highlands School be converted to an isolation hospital and nurses’ residence.   At this time there were 75 reported cases in the Highlands district.  An Edmonton Bulletin editorial endorsed the Highlands Committee, and the city supported the move as well.

On 2 November 21 deaths occurred in Edmonton, the most in one day to that point; another one hundred new cases were reported at this time. Flu suffers taking refuge in hotels began being removed in early November.  But in the Highlands a decline in cases was first reported, with only two new cases in the first week of November.  It was hoped the worst was over.


The Highlands Committee was divided into subcommittees in November 1918, with members and other volunteers visiting homes every day, allowing doctors and nurses to concentrate on the most serious cases. Most of these volunteers were neighbourhood women.  The Highlands Red Cross Circle No. 24 called on local women to contact Mrs. Clarence Smith (63rd Street), to volunteer for support work.  Stores were closed at the order of the provincial government, from 12:30 pm until their normal closing time, to allow more time for volunteer work.

Armistice Day came on 11 November amid the flu epidemic, and some subdued peace celebrations were held.  An estimated 40,000 cases were reported across Alberta at this time. Thanksgiving was postponed by proclamation of Lt. Gov. R.G. Brett on 13 November; instead, it would be held later, on Sunday 1 December 1918.

Rev. Coone reported on the activities of the Highlands Committee on 18 November.  Meetings had been held in the Coone home to free up the school for patient care.  Coone reported how the Highlands had been divided into two territories and six districts early in the crisis.  A complete canvass was made of all flu cases; each district had an appointed captain to organize and implement activities, and the area was patrolled regularly for new cases.  These new cases were reported to the Committee headquarters and aid was sent immediately where it was needed.  The whole district had two district nurses, one for each territory (Miss Lorraine Maguire and Mrs. McFadden were the main ones, with several others in the course of the crisis); they reported twice a day to Coone, as need for food, clothing, and doctor’s care emerged. Miss Van Iderstein of the Highlands was the first nurse to die of the flu in Edmonton.

A food centre was established at the home of Rev. Roxburgh; 25 families regularly contributed food, supplying forty people every day.  “The territory covered was from the flats to the munition factory.”  Soup was sent out each day at noon.  Cars were loaned to deliver baskets of food each evening; Mr. Gimby ran his car constantly for a week.

Members of the Highlands Committee were all prominent men from the Highlands:  Rev. A.W. Coone chair; Rev. Roxbury, secretary; Rev. G.H, Cobbledick; Rev. E.D. Bishop; W.H. Hughes; A.U.G. Bury; R.H. Leitch; E.W. Morehouse: K.W. McKenzie and W.J. Magrath. ADD

By early December the worst of the crisis seemed to have passed.  The University, closed for seven weeks, reopened and the residences were cleared of patients.  On 2 January 1919 city schools reopened despite another resurgence of the flu.  Highlands School was cleared out and fumigated for the students to return.

The Edmonton Morning Bulletin, on 6 January 1919, reported deaths in Alberta were 2,611, with 455 of these in Edmonton.  St. John workers ended their work on 7 January.  Placards were being taken down from infected houses.  Dr. T.H. Whitelaw, Edmonton Medical Health Officer, addressed the Highlands Citizenship Club at the Methodist Church, and estimated about 400 deaths in Edmonton, and about 10,000 total cases, many of which were not reported.  In fact, some people, recognizing that they had flu, did not apply for medical attention; this would lead to quarantine, and it was feared that the household breadwinners and other family members would be prevented from carrying out necessary tasks.  In December 1919 T.H. Whitelaw, the Edmonton Medical Officer, reported in the journal of the Canadian Medical Association, that the number of flu cases reported and quarantined never exceeded 60 per cent.

Another minor outbreak was reported in February, and there was talk of reclosing schools, but this did not happen.  Many felt that the Spanish Flu had finally left the city. People felt that the end of the war and the end of the flu were somehow related.  Although the flu would return intermittently to Alberta communities until the early 1920s, these proved to be less deadly and were written off as the grippe.

Vaccination was not developed early enough to prove effective in fighting the flu.  However Edmonton sent enough to Calgary when it ran out to inoculate 15,000.  Masks were recommended for those using street cars and trains on 25 October 1918.  These rules were often ignored; many carried a mask around their neck so they could quickly pull it up if they saw a constable.  At any rate, you could only use a mask once, then they had to be boiled and dried for them to be effective.  And we see that quarantine was hard to enforce in many cases.  The flu just moved through the neighbourhoods, taking the young and healthy as it went, with little effective control.  It seemed to burn itself out over the next five years or so.

The flu affected society deeply.  In 1919 the federal government established its Department of Health, as did many countries.  Vital statistics were improved to enable evaluation of such crises.  Sanitation systems received a boost from the concerns of the pandemic.  The United Farm Women of Alberta took on these issues.

The Spanish flu killed more directly than were killed in combat and its aftermath during the war.  It hit the entire world except for the Island of Tristan de Cunha.  Some estimate that over half the world population were affected – somewhere around a billion people.   Of these probably around 22 million died.  Canadian sufferers numbered around two million. (1/4 of the population!) Annual Reports of the Alberta Department of Health for 1918 and 1919 indicate that in Alberta 38,000 were afflicted, and over 4000 died. (Alberta population ~ 200,000 people. 20% got the flu, of those, 10%, or 2% of the whole population, died)

In conclusion, the Highlands was typical of the community spirit of Canadians, already exhausted by the war, gathering to help their neighbours when needed.  Their strengths and weaknesses were typical of most of the country.

Additional information:

For comparison: 620,000 Canadians fought in WW1. This is about 1/5 of all adult men, or 8% of the population of 8 million Canadians. 61,000 were killed and 172,000 were wounded. (‘Wounded’ doesn’t count PTSD or ‘Shell Shock’ as it was then known)  0.3% of the Canadian population was killed in WW1, about 1/10 of the number killed by the flu!

(Image from “In Flew Enza: The Spanish Flu Comes to Alberta”, from the Borealis Gallery, as reported by the CBC.)





  2 comments for “The Highlands Fights the Spanish Flu 1918-19

  1. Courtney Lakevold
    March 22, 2020 at 6:19 pm

    Wow, so interesting. Thank you for this!


  2. Andy Gullion
    March 28, 2020 at 4:02 pm

    Interesting story. Thanks for the share.

    Andy Gullion


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