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Newmarket cemeteries mark toll of deadliest pandemic in history (6 photos)

Lessons learned from the Spanish flu — which is estimated to have killed 50 million people worldwide in 1918 to 1919 — include how we recognize disease as a community issue, not an individual one, Newmarket historian Richard MacLeod says

Learning from the lessons of the past is essential to our species’ survival and the case of the Spanish Influenza 1918 to 1919 is certainly such an event. 

The Spanish Influenza pandemic developed at the end of the First World War, first appearing in Asia. According to records, the first known patient appeared at a United States military base in Kansas in the spring of 1918. 

The infection travelled back and forth between Europe and North America on the ships carrying our troops fighting in war. The theory remains that these troops then introduced the disease into Asia and Africa. 

The Spanish flu was caused by a viral infection that in time became deadly, eventually killing an estimated 50 million people worldwide. In Canada, more than 55,000 people died, mostly young adults between the ages of 20 and 40. These deaths compounded the impact of the more than 60,000 Canadians killed in service during the First World War (1914-18).

Undoubtedly timing was critical to the spread of the virus, so many people were travelling from one part of the world to another. History has dubbed the Spanish flu as being the most devastating pandemic in recorded world history. Yes, I know you were told at school that it was the Black Death.

So how did it come to be called the Spanish flu? The name derived from media censorship by the military in the Allied countries, which prevented the reporting of the viral infection and death of soldiers. Because Spain was neutral during the First World War, the Spanish media widely reported the high death toll of the illness. Thus, the name of the virus became synonymous with Spain. 

One of the features of the Spanish flu was the rapid infection in people in the prime of life. Previous deaths from influenza had tended to occur among the very young and elderly. Death either occurred by pneumonia in both primary viral infections and secondary bacterial infections, killing healthy and fit adults within 48 hours.

Because antibiotics were not yet available, the secondary bacterial pneumonia could not be treated. We must remember, there were no vaccines available until 1933 when human influenza viruses were finally isolated. 

Inadequate quarantine measures, powerlessness against the illness, and the lack of coordinated efforts from health authorities led to an insurmountable chaos. Countless nurses, volunteers, and members of charitable organizations risked their lives to ensure that the ill and their families survived. 

The Spanish flu was a significant event in the evolution of public health in Canada. It resulted in the creation of the federal Department of Health in 1919, which established a partnership between the various levels of government and made public health a joint responsibility in which the state played a prominent role, finally a national strategy. 

With no vaccine or effective treatment available, this devastating pandemic tended to come in multiple waves. The first wave took place in the spring of 1918, then in the fall of 1918, a mutation of the influenza virus produced an extremely contagious, virulent, and deadly form of the disease. This second wave caused 90 per cent of the deaths of the pandemic. Subsequent waves took place in the spring of 1919 and the spring of 1920. The deaths, estimated at between 50 and 100 million, claimed the lives of somewhere between 2.5 and 5 per cent  of the global population. Most of the victims were in the prime of their lives.

In Canada, the disease arrived at the port cities of Québec City, Montréal, and Halifax, then spread westward across the country. The intensification of the war effort in the final year was instrumental in the transmission of the disease, as troops travelling from east to west by train, mobilized to participate in the war in Siberia, brought the virus westward with them. 

Maritime quarantines, which had stopped infectious diseases from entering Canada in the 19th century, did not prevent the spread of the virus as the infected were travelling within the country, where no quarantine measures had been developed. 

Municipal and provincial authorities tried to save lives by prohibiting public gatherings and by isolating the sick, but these provisions had little effect. As the rates of infection grew, the number of healthy workers declined. 

Before long, the Canadian economy was paralyzed. Health care professionals were perhaps the hardest hit. Ultimately, it was volunteers, nurses, paramedics, and members of religious communities who, risking their own lives, visited those who were ill and their families to deliver modest health care and the supplies needed to survive. 

You only need to walk through the local cemeteries to see just how hard Canada was hit by the illness, the spread of the infection included both the urban areas and even the most remote communities. Canada had a population of about 8.7 million in 1918, based on data from the 1921 census. The death rate from Spanish flu was about 4.5 per cent of the population. 

More than 1,000 people died in Toronto and area alone, with a total of 8,700 deaths in Ontario. There were 4,000 deaths in both Alberta and Manitoba and 5,000 in Saskatchewan. Some Indigeneous communities lost almost their entire population to the illness. The effects crossed racial, social and geographic barriers. 

Most Canadian communities adopted measures to attempt to contain the spread of the virus. Alberta adopted the requirement of wearing face masks in public. In Saskatchewan, one could be fined for public coughing or sneezing. Some towns would impose quarantines where people could not enter or leave without being arrested. 

In a stunningly short span of time, the Spanish flu took almost as many Canadian lives as had been killed during the four years of the Great War. Indiscriminate and horrific in its proportions and the speed with which it spread and killed, the pandemic profoundly impacted the history of Canada. 

To get a proper perspective of just how devastating the Spanish flu was, consider the following:

  • One third of the world’s population was infected by the Spanish flu.
  • 50 per cent of those infected were healthy young men and women under 40.
  • 3 per cent of the world’s population died.
  • The Spanish flu killed more people in 18 months than AIDS has killed in 35 years or the Black Plague killed in 100 years.
  • Canadians were spurred to respond with purpose and determination.
  • The pandemic brought about the creation of the Federal Department of Health, a national incentive.
  • The pandemic also persuaded Canadians to recognize disease as being a community problem, not an individual one.

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 to 1919 was one of the most catastrophic events in Newmarket and area’s history, and yet it has been all but overlooked or forgotten.

Over the years we have talked about the outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the Avian flu in the early 21st century and now this new corornavirus. 

Interestingly, all these viral infections seem to have originated from mutated animal viruses. Animal viruses are not usually contagious in humans, and a virus must undergo certain changes in genes, or mutations, to become infectious. While scientists still do not completely understand the exact mutations involved, research into historical diseases such as the Spanish flu may help develop new theories and potential treatments.  

Now the flu pandemic has returned but over the years we have learned, adapted, and prepared, using the lessons learned from our past to prepare ourselves.

History does, indeed, repeat itself.

If you wish to see the toll taken by the flu in Newmarket, I suggest you go to the library, when it re-opens, and check out the accounts in the Newmarket Era of the period.

Sources: The Library and Archives of Canada / PA-025025) ; Articles from Canadian Heritage, the BC Centre for Disease Control, the Canadian Encyclopedia; The Newmarket Era 1918 - 1920


Richard MacLeod, Newmarket's History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact him at


About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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