Halifax during the Spanish flu
A waiting room in the new Public Health Clinic at Dalhousie University. Photo: Dalhousie University Photograph Collection, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, PC1, Box 31, Folder 19, Item 3
By Dorothy Grant 25 March 2020 Share this story
Halifax and Dartmouth were in horrifying condition in 1918–19, as desperate residents tried to rebuild in the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion.
A little more than a year after that terrible tragedy the Spanish flu arrived, soon killing hundreds of men, women, and children. Officials opened hospital beds at the quarantine facility on Lawlor Island and new wards in the Victoria General Hospital. So they opened a new care facility in Willow Park.
People began wearing face masks and health authorities from Halifax ordered all bodies to be buried immediately, before funeral services.
In an archive report, a Halifax man recalled hearing “They threw them in a hole just like animals.”
Many families lost several people, and fear soon gripped the city. The local boards of health tried to fight the spread, closing public gathering places. The military took over a curling rink and two church halls, turning them into makeshift hospitals. Students graduation from first-aid and home nursing classes were quickly put to work caring for the ill.
The Spanish flu struck quickly. Victims would suddenly begin shivering, then suffer severe headaches and back pain, often collapsing. Next came a high fever, a hacking cough, and aching joints.
Most who died survived the first three or four days before developing pneumonia and cyanosis (caused by low blood oxygen levels), which often brought on their death. The highest mortality was among healthy people in the 20–40 age group.
The first confirmed influenza death in Halifax County was 13-month-old Murray Dorrington, who died on Sept. 11, 1918. Ten more quickly followed
Officials told people “How to Dodge Flu”—avoiding crowds, protecting their nose and mouth in the presence of “sneezers,” and above all “Don’t get Scared!” They didn’t understand a lot about how illness spreads, and our now basic hand-washing precaution was unmentioned.
By April 1920, the pandemic had killed some 2,265 Nova Scotians, more than the Halifax Explosion.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.
Dorothy Grant chose nursing as her first career, journalism as her second, and working with the Medical Society of Nova Scotia as her third. She has an irrepressible passion for writing and her articles appear in many publications.
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