One hundred years ago, Nova Scotia was a sombre place. School closures were frequent and church services were often cancelled. People were encouraged to stay in their homes and avoid contact with their neighbours.
The province, along with much of the rest of the world, was still in the grips of the Spanish flu, the last outbreak of which was just starting.
By the end of its final flare-up, Spanish influenza killed more people in Nova Scotia than the 1917 Halifax Explosion, but the impact on the province of the most deadly pandemic in world history has been relatively unexplored.
New research suggests about 2,200 people died in the province, about 200 more than the death toll from the Halifax Explosion.
Women were hit particularly hard by the virus, which was most deadly for adults under 65. Many nurses and other women died after caring for patients and family members who’d fallen ill.
“Most people don’t even remember that the epidemic took place because it’s so long ago and has never been written about,” said medical historian Allan Marble. “It was a major, major catastrophe that we faced.”
Deaths only recently counted
Marble wondered for years why the Nova Scotia experience wasn’t looked at in depth.
“And then I realized they couldn’t because the important information about the influenza was in the vital statistics department in the government, and they were not releasing the vital statistics,” he said.
After the government released those statistics in 2005, Marble began combing through the data to chronicle how many people died and where.
The first deaths were reported in 1918 in Cape Breton and the final deaths from the virus, which is a strain of H1N1, came in 1920.
“[The flu] was brought in by a soldier who was returning from the First World War,” said Marble.
On Sept. 1, 1918, a young woman was reported dead in the Cape Breton community of Belle Côte.
Within two weeks, 14 people in the area had died. Waves of returning soldiers brought more of the virus to Sydney and Halifax, as did fishermen from Massachusetts — where the virus had already taken hold — who landed in the southwest of the province to sell fish and supplies.
By the end of the final outbreak in early 1920, there had been roughly 2,200 deaths from the flu in all parts of the province, according to Marble’s research.
“It is amazing to me how in Advocate Harbour, for instance, which was very isolated at the time, there were deaths,” Marble said.
“And that’s because of course they were being delivered mail, there were RCMP going through there, there were clergymen, there were peddlers. And frankly anyone that was carrying the virus could transmit it to other people.”
Historian Ruth Whitehead has written a book about the impact of the Spanish flu on Nova Scotia, which will be released in October.
One of the stories she collected was that of a Pugwash man who survived being shot 28 times while fighting in the First World War.
“He finally got invalided back to Canada and recovered enough to be named the customs master for the Port of Pugwash. His life seemed to be finally settling down a little bit, and he married a nice young woman,” said Whitehead. “Only a few months later, [he] died of influenza.”
Whitehead was inspired to document the experience after she began investigating the story of an uncle who died from the virus in the U.S.
“It made me realize I didn’t know what happened in Nova Scotia,” she said. “I think it’s something we need to think about for the future, let alone to remember about the past. And since very few people here in Nova Scotia or elsewhere talk about this, or know about it … I hope this book might do a little bit to mitigate that.”
Once she began looking into it, Whitehead found stories of communities, families and individuals devastated by the virus.
In Petit-de-Grat, the crew of a vessel carrying salt brought the virus, incapacitating the community so badly that no one in the outside world heard about the epidemic until a month after it started.
In Kings County, an elderly man staggered through snow to get help for his family, all of whom were sick, only to have all but one member die before the doctor arrived.
Quick action prevented spread
Despite losses like these, Marble said Nova Scotia fared well compared to most other provinces, a fact he attributes in part to what the mayor of Halifax, Dr. Arthur C. Hawkins, did.
“He sent three doctors to Boston to find out what they had done to prevent it and deal with it. And fortunately he did that because when those three doctors came back a few days later, they said to him, ‘Dr. Hawkins, you have to close all public places in Halifax,'” Marble said.
In the absence of an effective public-health system or provincial government response, Marble said the mayor, along with public health and quarantine officers, acted on their own to limit the spread.
Together, they imposed isolation orders, closing public places and advising people to stay home on three occasions between late 1918 and early 1920, making Nova Scotia the first province to do so.
“Even though they frequently didn’t agree on things, when they realized this was a crisis, they combined forces,” Marble said. “Those three are heroes as far as I’m concerned.”
He’d like to see them get public recognition for their efforts, but said there’s another way to honour their legacy.
“People definitely should get a flu shot every year. No doubt about it,” he said. “We have to have a way to be prepared.”
Whitehead said by understanding the impact the Spanish flu had on Nova Scotia, it can help people better respond to a future pandemic.
She hopes that knowing the history will encourage people to recognize how Nova Scotians came together to help one another through a difficult time.
“The thing that really impressed me was the common sense and compassion that people all over Nova Scotia showed to each other,” she said. “People just did the best they could.”
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