How to Dodge 'Flu'

Halifax's response to the Spanish Influenza pandemic, October, 1918

By the end of the summer 1918, Halifax and Dartmouth were still rebuilding and recovering from the deadly Halifax Explosion that claimed nearly 2,000 lives and devastated both communities. By all appearances, the First World War was slowly drawing to a close, but this bustling military port on the East Coast was still busy with the comings and goings of maritime traffic. No one could foresee the arrival of a deadly illness that would kill more than 50,000 people across Canada before the end of the decade and shut down much of public life in Halifax and Dartmouth for the entire month of October.

The pandemic known as the "Spanish" flu developed first in Asia. In the Spring of 1918, it caught the public's attention with news of outbreaks at military bases in the USA, Spain, and war-torn Europe. As a particularly strong viral infection, the Spanish Flu did not discriminate between the old and the young. A healthy adult would die within 48 hours once the infection became bacterial pneumonia, and with no antibiotics or vaccines available, there wasn't much anyone could do to save victims.

Daily newspapers in Halifax offer glimpses of how the city handled the outbreak. While news of the pandemic had trickled in from Boston, on September 21, 1918, a report from "an Atlantic Port" (Sydney, Nova Scotia) raised a province-wide alarm: over 500 American soldiers had arrived sick and were in need of hospitalization. Over the next two months, cities and towns across Nova Scotia fought to control both the spread of the disease and to provide proper care for the victims.

The Cogswell Street Military Hospital near the corner of Gottingen Street received some of the first in Halifax to be infected with Spanish Flu. As the virus spread, both Dartmouth and Halifax opened beds for victims at the quarantine facility on Lawlor's Island, unused wards in Victoria General Hospital, and Greenvale School. The Halifax Board of Health also rushed to create a facility exclusively for flu patients, converting some of the temporary housing in Willow Park that was built for Halifax Explosion reconstruction workers.

Halifax and Dartmouth's Boards of Health took other initiatives to stop the flu from spreading. They ordered all public gathering places, including churches, theatres, schools, and restaurants to reduce open hours or to close completely. This cautionary measure provoked anger from business owners and discontent from late-night industrial workers.

On the flip side, some businesses saw opportunity in the outbreak. One men's clothing store advertised that their products would help avoid influenza by keeping you warm and dry. Unproven "miracle cures" such as drinking pasteurized milk from sterilized bottles were advertised as a way to stave off the flu. The public, too, had their own ideas for how to stop the spread of disease, including burning sulphur on street corners. As the Spanish Flu raged, newspapers published daily reports, listing new cases, infected occupant addresses, and sadly, deaths. All funerals had to be performed quickly, with no public attendance.

While the Spanish Flu pandemic cost many lives in Nova Scotia, it did offer Halifax an opportunity to return a favour. Following the Halifax Explosion, the city of Boston sent doctors, nurses, aid, and supplies to help with relief efforts. Less than a year later, Boston and the State of Massachusetts were crippled by the Spanish Flu. This allowed Halifax to repay their neighbours in kind, sending available Halifax-area doctors and nurses to help. Samuel W. McCall, Governor of Massachusetts, sent a telegram offering thanks for the assistance: "This act of yours typifies the spirit of Halifax and Nova Scotia and serves to bind together with closer ties this commonwealth and your province."

By the end of October, the number of flu cases peaked. Halifax and Dartmouth must have felt like weary, strange places: twin cities recovering from the Explosion, enduring the fourth and final year of a World War, and now struggling to contain a fast-striking disease. But almost as quickly as it arrived, the flu outbreak was brought under control. On November 5, all public health restrictions were lifted and life began to return to normal, just in time to celebrate the end of World War One on November 11, 1918.