Award: This exhibit is the recipient of the Recovering Canada Award resulting from a contest held by Defining Moments Canada and sponsored by the Government of Canada, Canada’s History, the Canadian Science and Technology Museum, and the Canadian Nurses Association. Thank you to Defining Moments Canada for recognizing this project.
The years 2018-2019 mark 100 years since the Spanish Flu swept across the world. This online exhibit has been developed to acknowledge its impact and significance on the citizens of Dufferin County, Ontario. In six months, the Spanish Influenza pandemic killed some 30 million people around the world and some 30-50,000 people across Canada. This nearly forgotten pandemic was among the worst in modern history in terms of rate of illness and death. The Spanish Flu epidemic made its way to Dufferin County by October of 1918, likely along common transportation routes, especially through railway hubs like Toronto. The epidemic peaked in November, lasting until February of 1919.
Exploring the History of Spanish Influenza in Dufferin County
Please explore our timeline and map to discover local stories. The timeline is divided into three areas:
- The “In the News” timeline features news reports from local papers, including the Orangeville Banner, Orangeville Sun and Shelburne Free Press.
- The “Deaths” timeline tracks the victims who died from the flu in Dufferin County. (Please note that this timeline contains only the names and information of people whose deaths were registered in Dufferin County.)
- “Feature Stories” are a more in-depth look into some key aspects of the epidemic as it unfolded in Dufferin County.
Navigation Instructions: Use your mouse to click and drag to any section of the timeline. Hover over any information point and click “more” to view all details.
Viewing Settings for the Timeline: Using the wrench tool in the bottom right-hand corner will allow you to customize your view of the timeline. You can view the timeline in either 2D or 3D modes by toggling the button in the bottom left-hand corner.
Flu by the Numbers
The 1918 pandemic spread in three waves: the spring wave of 1918, the fall wave (starting in late August of 1918), and the winter-spring wave of 1918-1919. By late 1918, four years of war had set the stage for a world-wide pandemic. Factors such as fatigue, reduced nutrition, and enhanced movement of people by land and sea made people more vulnerable to illness. In addition, the mild winter of 1918-1919 allowed the virus to spread rapidly.
Early on in the outbreak, it was widely believed that the Spanish Flu was no different than the annual fall flu or the outbreak of 1889-1890, commonly referred to as “la grippe”. The similarities, however, caused problems as people underestimated the much more virulent and contagious nature of the 1918 epidemic. This led to an apathetic response in terms of preparation and passive attempts to contain the spread. For the most part, people in Dufferin County kept going on about their lives as usual. That is, until local Board of Health officials started imposing restrictions on public spaces and gatherings once the epidemic had set in.
Yet, what was there to do except “keep on keeping on”? A complete understanding of viruses still eluded the medical community, no vaccine existed, and attempts at quarantine elsewhere really hadn’t worked. The Spanish Flu was an unseen and unpredictable force moving with little opposition.
One of the most notable characteristics of the Spanish flu was that it primarily affected the young adult population — otherwise healthy people in the prime of their life, who made up a large portion of the working and school-aged population.
The flu of 1918, like others before it, greatly reduced resistance to other diseases. These subsequent illnesses were, in most cases, what did the killing. With the Spanish Flu, it was usually pneumonia that led to death.
Victims of Spanish Influenza were stricken with a sudden onset of shivering, severe headache, pains in their back and legs, and a general feeling of weakness. This was followed by a sore throat, cough and fever. Within as little as a few days to a week, pneumonia would set in. Most deaths resulting from pneumonia took place between one and two days following the onset of symptoms.
For various reasons a precise death total and rate of illness (morbidity) can never be known. It is, however, possible to estimate the number of cases based on population census data and figures provided by historians. Ontario is estimated to have experienced 9000 deaths out of 300,000 cases. This equates to 3 deaths per 100 cases. If this mortality rate is applied to the death totals for Dufferin County, we can estimate the number of cases for the county in the Fall/Winter of 1918-1919.
The number of cases in Dufferin County appears to have been fairly high (an average of 8% of the population or 1 illness for about every 13 citizens). The percentage of the population that died as a result of Spanish Influenza/Pneumonia is much lower (an average of 0.24% or 1 death for about every 440 people). This means that Dufferin County sustained a high morbidity (rate of illness), but low mortality (rate of death). In comparison to more densely populated areas of Canada, such as Toronto or Montreal, Dufferin County had a relatively light brush with the Spanish Flu. While the 1918 influenza epidemic may have been mild in Dufferin County compared to other regions, it still had a significant impact on the social and economic aspects of life.
Good To Know:
An infectious disease caused by a virus, which is highly contagious. The word is derived from the Latin word “Influentia” meaning influence.
This was the influenza pandemic of 1918. It lasted from January 1918-December 1920. It was the first of two pandemics involving the H1N1 influenza virus, killing 3-5% of the world’s population. The exact origin of the pandemic is not certain, but since Spain did not censor reports in the same way as other nations, it led to the widespread belief that Spain was the source.
The word is derived from Greek meaning “upon people” or “above people”. It refers to the rapid spread of infectious disease, to a large number of people, within a short amount of time. The main triggers for an epidemic include: increased virulence and increased host susceptibility to the infectious agent.
The word is derived from Greek meaning “all people”. A pandemic is an epidemic of infectious disease that has spread across a large region, such as multiple continents.
Is French for “influenza”. It was the term used in the late 1700s for the illness we now call the flu. It may have been in reference to constriction of the throat felt by sufferers. The flu outbreak of 1889-1890 was commonly called la-grippe.
How Did the 1918 Flu Impact Dufferin County?
In other words, why does the history of the Spanish Flu matter to our local history?
- Family loss and bereavement. You would be hard pressed to find a person living in Dufferin County in 1918 that hadn’t lost a loved one, relative, friend, or colleague as a result of the 1918 Flu. Even though the death total within Dufferin County’s borders was quite low, local citizens had relations living near and far who succumbed to the deadly virus. According to the funeral register for J.H. Hulse’s Undertaking business in Orangeville, two-thirds of funerals between October and December of 1918 were Spanish Flu related. Some victims were locals, however, many were being sent home to be buried in family plots.
- The after-effects. For those that survived, the 1918 Flu often left a lasting mark. Those recovering often found that symptoms ranging from general weakness to nerve damage or heart conditions affected their ability to return to a normal life.
- A maxed-out medical system. At the height of the epidemic, medical facilities and staff were pushed to their limit. There was no protocol for events on a scale such as this. This led to mixed responses and uneven reporting. In the aftermath of the pandemic, medical professionals were able to learn from the experience. On a federal level, the 1918 Flu led to the establishment of the Canadian Department of Health.
- Economic impacts. During the height of the epidemic, many businesses, especially those related to entertainment, were closed down. As a result, citizens running theatres, billiard/pool halls, social clubs and the like suffered the loss of several months income. This would have been especially difficult during the Christmas shopping season in November/December of 1918. On the other end of the spectrum, pharmacies, drug stores and undertaking businesses did exceptionally well.
- Social impacts. Socially, the 1918 Flu was an inconvenient nuisance for local citizens. Most kids, if healthy, probably didn’t mind missing out on school. However, most people were likely annoyed by the way the epidemic disrupted normal activities such as church, getting their mail, visiting with friends, or seeing a play. When it had run its course, people were keen to forget and move on!
Mapping the 1918 Flu in Dufferin County
Using obituaries, death registries, tax assessments, and other archival documents, we have mapped the locations of Spanish Influenza deaths in Dufferin County.
Viewing and Navigation Settings for the Map: Access the menu by clicking on the icon in the top left-hand corner of the map window. Zoom in and out using the + or – buttons in the bottom left-hand corner. Click on map pins to explore details.
Written and prepared by Julie McNevin, Education Programmer
Copyright – all rights reserved. The pictures and content in this exhibit may not be reproduced without consent from the Museum of Dufferin.
Ancestry.ca. Ontario, Canada, Deaths and Deaths Overseas, 1869-1946 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2018. Original data: Archives of Ontario. Division Registrar Vital Statistics Records, 1858-1930. MS 940, reels 5-10, 16, 21, 26-27. Archives of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Ancestry.ca. Public Member Photos & Scanned Documents [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2018. Original data: Family tree photos submitted by Ancestry members.
Funeral Register, Hulse’s Undertaking, Orangeville, Ontario. Museum of Dufferin, AR-4973-008.
Johnson, Niall P. A.S., and Juergen Mueller. “Updating the Accounts: Global Mortality of the 1918-1920 “Spanish” Influenza Pandemic.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76, no. 1 (2002): 105-15. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44446153.
Library and Archives Canada. War Diary for the 18th Canadian Infantry Battalion. RG9-III-D-3. http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx.
Library and Archives Canada. War Diary for the 4th Canadian Casualty Clearing Station. RG9-III-D-3. http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx.
McGinnis, Janice P. “The Impact of Epidemic Influenza: Canada, 1918-1919”. Historical Papers 12, no. 1 (1977): 120–140. doi:10.7202/030824ar.
Orangeville Banner. September 1918 – March 1919. Microfilm. Museum of Dufferin.
Orangeville Sun. September 1918 – March 1919. Microfilm. Museum of Dufferin.
Patterson, K. David, and Gerald F. Pyle. “The Geography and Mortality of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 65, no. 1 (1991): 4-21. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44447656.
Shelburne Free Press and Economist. September 1918 – March 1919. Microfilm. Museum of Dufferin.