Spanish flu pandemic was an inspiration for Norfolk General Hospital

Public notices like this were common across Canada during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20. The respiratory ailment took a heavy toll in Norfolk and was the inspiration, in part, for the construction and opening of Norfolk General Hospital in 1925. With permission of the Glenbow Archives

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Norfolk’s attempt to control the Spanish flu was half-hearted. The county paid a high price for that.

Public health reporting was hit-and-miss 100 years ago, but records indicate the aggressive virus killed about 50,000 Canadians from 1918 to 1920.

This is comparable to the number of Canadian soldiers who died in the First World War. Using that as a yardstick, it is conceivable that Spanish flu killed 250 residents of Norfolk – about the same number of county soldiers (265) who made the supreme sacrifice from 1914 to 1918.

There were a number of reasons for this lack of urgency. In Simcoe, the town’s board of health ordered specific closures and social distancing for several weeks in the fall of 1918. But the closures were not exhaustive, and they were lifted in November just as they seemed to be working.

Then as now, people fretted about being cooped up and the challenges this posed for commerce and the provision of employment.

As well, public officials then had little concept of welfare and social safety nets. What little public charity there was 100 years ago was grudging and came with a stigma. Government at all levels had little history of helping and wouldn’t know where to begin. Their solution was to get out of the way and let the pandemic run its course.

Spanish flu was arguably the most dangerous public health emergency Norfolk has ever faced. However, it came as a seasonal flu when people expected to get sick. It was also one of many brutal pathogens people had to contend with.

Alongside reports of Spanish flu, the Simcoe Reformer featured reports of typhoid, diphtheria, tuberculosis and other serious illnesses associated with filth and poor sanitation. Simcoe’s board of health lamented the impoverished conditions in town and the squalor in which many families lived.

“One fact the epidemic has brought to the surface, and that was that slum conditions existed in the town of Simcoe,” the Nov. 7, 1918 Reformer said.

“Homes had been visited that were filthy, and patients had been brought to the (temporary) hospital who revealed the fact that soap and water had never been used.”

Simcoe Coun. Henry Crabb urged the appointment of a full-time sanitation inspector with the authority to enter homes and issue orders.

“In the majority of cases, said Mr. Crabb, it was not caused by poverty but by absolute filthiness, downright laziness, or call it what you will,” the Reformer said.

Given its potential for disfigurement, an even bigger curse was smallpox. Near the end of the flu pandemic, the Reformer expressed disgust with an outbreak of smallpox in the Port Rowan area:

“Proper quarantine seems to be deficient in the country, and people showing symptoms have come to town to do business,” the Reformer reported on May 22, 1919. “A little sacrifice and a united effort will be necessary to avert an epidemic.”

The general atmosphere of sickness and poor health wasn’t confined to Norfolk. Statistics Canada says the average lifespan of a Canadian in 1920 was 59.7 years. If any good came from the Spanish flu, it was the realization that government has a role to play in the promotion of public health.

Three doctors shared similar sentiments at a February 1919 meeting of the Simcoe Women’s Institute. The doctors estimated that only eight per cent of Norfolk residents who needed health care were getting it. They lamented it was nearly impossible to perform proper surgeries in the absence of a sanitary hospital with nurses on hand to assist.

The physicians – led by Dr. F.E.B. McGilvery – said the solution was the establishment of a permanent infirmary in town, the suggestion of which came to fruition with the grand opening of Norfolk General Hospital in 1925. The Simcoe Women’s Institute responded to the doctors with a pledge of unqualified support for the fundraising campaign to come.

 

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