Family photo of Mary Jane Amey's grandparents and children (including her mother, far right), ca 1927-28

COVID-19 and the ‘Spanish’ Influenza of 1918-19

As we all cope with a rapidly changing world and the increasing uncertainty wrought by COVID-19, the health and well-being of our families, our community and of all people is uppermost in our hearts and minds. History cannot change the facts but it can offer some perspective that may provide a level of comfort.

One hundred years ago the ‘Spanish’ influenza epidemic ravaged much of the world, already reeling from the effects of World War I. A recent article in the Goderich Signal-Star recounts the experience in nearby Huron County.

SDHS (2019) member Mary Jane Amey has submitted a story (below) based on her grandmother’s recollections of that century-old pandemic in Montreal.

A recollection of the 1918-19 Influenza Epidemic in Montreal

I was one of those kids who was always hanging around the adults and listening to their talk. The country cottage in summer was the perfect place for that, where my grandparents spent a month with us each July. Sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, my Grandmother was reminiscing about the Flu Epidemic of 1918-19. I don’t believe this episode coincided with the early 1950s polio outbreak in Canada, but it might have. I remember the latter.

Grandma told me that young, working age adults were most at-risk, and that Montreal was a particularly “bad” flu centre as it was a seaport through which many returning World War One soldiers passed. A more virulent strain of the influenza spread during the fall of 1919, so I assume these occurrences must have taken place then.

My Grandparents were in their 20s then, my mother and her brother toddlers, three and one years old respectively. As my grandfather’s job, for the CNR, was deemed essential, he went out to work every day. Knowledge of virology was limited and there were no antibiotics yet. However, the government (perhaps local) had suggested some precautions and so all public gatherings were cancelled. My Grandmother, a weekly attending church-goer, told me that she did not go to church for months and there was also no dancing on Saturday nights.

Circa 1917- Mary Jane's Grandfather (white sweater), Grandmother(background), Mother (foreground), and family friend (right)
Circa 1917- Mary Jane’s Grandfather (white sweater), Grandmother(background), Mother (foreground), and family friend (right)

One memory that stuck in my mind from Grandma’s story was that Grandpa was quarantined within the house. He slept in the spare bedroom and had his meals in there too. As a further precaution, Grandma hung wet sheets over his door and kept the kids away from him for six weeks or more. The “wet sheet” tactic had its origins with the American military, which was extremely hard hit by the epidemic. Sheets were hung between the beds of soldiers in close quarters, in order to slow down the spread of airborne contagion, the best they could hope for then. Grandpa never did get influenza and neither did any of his family.

My sister, who worked for the CBC added to my story. She interviewed an author who had written a book about the epidemic, and she also asked our Dad what he remembered. He recalled two things:

1) Some houses along his street had quarantine signs posted on them and, even as a little boy, he knew he was not to go near those houses.

2) In single-breadwinner families, as most were in those days, it was not uncommon for the working parent to be quarantined, usually the father. Dad remembered one father on his street who self-quarantined in his closed-in porch, at the front of the house.

I believe we live in better times.

-Mary Jane Amey