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Archival photo of Winnipeggers gathering at Portage Avenue and Main Street to celebrate Armistice DayFeature
Stepping up
Many of the Winnipeg nurses and doctors
who rallied to care for patients during
the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic also
became infected by the virus. At least seven
full-time nurses, nine volunteer nurses and
one doctor died as a result.
Winnipeggers gather at Portage Avenue and Main Street to celebrate Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, despite concerns about the Spanish flu. (Photo: Archives of Manitoba)
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By Bill Redekop
Nov/Dec 2018

One of the forgotten stories in Winnipeg's fight against the Spanish flu a century ago concerns the volunteer nurses who risked their lives tending to the sick and dying.

There was a shortage of nurses in 1918, partly due to many working overseas to assist the war effort, but also due to poor pay and working conditions.

Winnipeg women volunteered to fill the breach by working with flu victims both in hospitals and by making house calls. One volunteer group, the Margaret Scott Nursing Mission, visited 2,000 homes alone.

Many women took crash courses in nursing, like that provided by St. John Ambulance. Because schools were closed due to a ban on public gatherings, many female teachers stepped into the breach. About 60 teachers were working as nurses within a month of the flu's arrival.

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At times, volunteer nurses entered houses to find entire families ill and dying. Some women suffered breakdowns from the stress.

"The physical and psychological demands placed on the volunteers were extremely high," writes Esyllt Jones, in her superlative book Influenza 1918: Disease, Death, and Struggle in Winnipeg.

Then the volunteers started to die.

It's hard to imagine those times, but it's worse to forget them. People were dying left and right.

Nurses and volunteer nurses were in "the contact zone," as Jones words it, putting themselves at high risk of catching the contagion. There are countless stories of their courage, like one nurse volunteer who stayed up through the night at a stranger's home to tend to a sick child because the parents were too ill themselves.

At least seven nurses died because of the Spanish flu in Winnipeg. Trying to count the fatalities among volunteer nurses is more difficult. Among those registered, at least nine died and that's just for Winnipeg, largely excluding many suburbs that make up the city today.

Jones thinks it's disappointing that the efforts of women and especially female volunteers in the 1918-19 pandemic haven't been memorialized in some way. There isn't a statue or plaque anywhere in Manitoba, or anywhere in Canada, so far as she is aware.

It wasn't just nursing but tasks like cooking and providing clean laundry and linens to people that women volunteered for. "Even at that time, caring for the ill was a very gendered role," Jones says.

But the role of women needs to be remembered not just for their sacrifice but for the lesson it can provide in future crises.

"I do wish it was recognized to a greater extent. It would make people think differently about how you survive events like a pandemic," says Jones, who is an associate professor in the University of Manitoba's History Department.

"I say this partly because pandemic preparedness now is very much focused on the role of the experts and health-care providers and doesn't consider very much how one might mobilize a volunteer network. At the local level, that work was so important in the pandemic."

Male volunteers, on the other hand, played a much smaller role against the influenza, like chauffeuring nurse volunteers from house to house.

"Men volunteers provided some support, like driving ambulances (regular cars designated as ambulances during the crisis), and that stuff was important, but not to the same extent," Jones says.

Of course, priests and doctors tended the sick as part of their vocation, and were predominantly male. Jones, who has a new book coming out in the spring on the history of medicare called Radical Medicine, says doctors were distraught at how helpless they felt against the pandemic.

Esyllt Jones
Author Esyllt Jones praises the heroic effort
made by female volunteers to care for
people who fell sick during the 1918-19
Spanish flu pandemic.

"It was very deflating, very difficult at a personal level, dealing with so many deaths all at once," says Jones. "Physicians spoke about how demoralizing it was not to be able to help people. They had very few tools in their toolbox."

This article is not able to offer a list of physician deaths, but there was at least one fatality at the Winnipeg General Hospital at the end of November, 1918, according to its annual report.

"It is with regret that we have to record the death of Dr. Fred Orok, a member of the Interne Staff, who contracted Spanish Influenza whilst carrying out his duties," the report says.

The Winnipeg General report states that one pupil nurse (basically all the nurses in hospitals except supervisors were pupil nurses back then, while graduates worked privately outside hospitals) died from influenza. Her name was Florence Smith.

The hospital also gratefully acknowledged the work of volunteer nurses in addition to its own staff. It couldn't have managed without the volunteers with so many of its own staff coming down sick with Spanish flu.

Operating procedure shows nurses and nurse volunteers were the front-line workers.

It was before government-funded medical care. Middle and upper classes would have had access to private nurses. There was a private nurses' registry, so the public could find them.

But where affordability was an issue, people could call a special Emergency Nursing Bureau. A city health nurse would visit and assess the situation, and then assign volunteer nurses and housekeepers to assist accordingly.

The Winnipeg General and King George hospitals filled up with flu patients, so space had to be opened up at the North Winnipeg Hospital. The Children's Hospital, then on Aberdeen Avenue, took in stricken children and also children whose parents were too sick to care for them or who had died. The St. Boniface, Grace and Victoria hospitals also took patients.

It wasn't enough. Extra space had to be found. St. John's College was turned into a temporary hospital. Another 200 beds were opened at a building called Old Coffee House at Logan Avenue and Main Street.

The volunteer effort stands out for its gender bias. Women volunteering with the charitable group Diet Kitchen, funded largely by private donations, fed several thousand families during the crisis.

The Women's Labour League helped raise funds to pay for funerals. The cost of funerals was a major issue back then, with many families devastated by multiple deaths.

"People helped each other and drew on each other's resources where possible," Jones says.

The Spanish flu struck some areas harder than others. First Nations and poorer urban neighbourhoods were hit hard, possibly due to overcrowding.

But the deadly virus wasn't fussy about its victims.

Jones's book states that Mrs. A.K. Dysart, a noted wealthy philanthropist, was one of the first victims, dying within nine days of the arrival of a troop train that is believed to have brought the virus to Winnipeg. In fact, the disease struck first in neighbourhoods along the Assiniboine River where many of the city's most prosperous residents resided.

In total, there were 1,216 registered deaths from the Spanish flu in Winnipeg, out of a population of 180,000 at the time. That was for the city proper and didn't include surrounding municipalities at the time like St. James, St. Boniface or Transcona.

Although deaths attributed to the flu were common, some did generate more attention than others.

The Winnipeg Evening Tribune reported on Wednesday, Nov. 27, that Thomas (Woodie) Gray, 28, "one of the most popular men in Winnipeg" died from the flu without knowing that his wife and newborn child passed just two days earlier.

In a front page story, the Tribune noted that Woodie's father, city alderman Herbert Gray, had little time to mourn the passing of his son, grandson and daughter-in-law because he was busy caring for five of his remaining eight children who had also come down with the flu.

Archival image of a newspaper front page and Dr. Fred Orok
Left: The deaths of "Woodie" Gray, his wife and her newborn, made front page news.
Right: Dr. Fred Orok contracted the Spanish flu while carrying out his duties as an intern.
(Photo: University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collection)

A Tribune reporter who visited the Grays' home, at 296 Langside Street, noted the house was like a hospital. "I don't know what I would do but for the kindness of neighbours," the elder Gray told the newspaper.

Both Woodie Gray and his wife, Dorothy, 26, were taken to hospital after falling sick with the flu just days earlier. Dorothy Gray gave birth to a baby boy on Sunday, Nov. 24, about a half hour before she died. Woodie, who was extremely sick, was not informed that his wife and son had died. He was survived by his only other son, three-year-old Gordon.

All this was happening as the elder Gray was running for re-election as alderman. In a comment that perhaps captures the stoic nature of people living at the time, Herbert Gray told the Tribune that he did not want voters to consider his personal circumstances when deciding to cast their ballots.

"I certainly haven't had time to canvass for votes, but there's one thing I sincerely hope - and that is, that I get no sympathy votes," he said. "If I thought even one person voted for me in sympathy, I would lie to spoil that ballot."

The Tribune reported that Gray won the election a few days later, beating his opponent 2,428 to 1,500.

The fight against the Spanish flu transcended class. The newspapers at the time reported at length about Anglo-Canadian female volunteers from the middle and upper classes descending into the city's poor neighbourhoods to provide aid. It was a world otherwise completely foreign to them, says Jones.

Jones maintains similar efforts were going on within working-class neighbourhoods, ethnic groups and religious groups, but weren't being reported on.

Even so, Jones cites this remarkable alliance of rich and poor bonded together against their pandemic adversary. In her book, she described it as "empathy across social boundaries."

"Middle-class women entered slum neighbourhoods, many of them for the first time. They entered into (their homes) to provide intimate bodily care and to witness the individual and family at their most vulnerable," she writes.

In turn, surviving families often stayed in touch with the volunteers who helped them in their struggle, and later sent cards and gifts, like chocolates.

Jones calls it "an extraordinary encounter, profoundly affecting individuals, and picking at the edges of social hierarchy in Winnipeg society."

Her descriptions sound like they are from a novel, something along the lines of Albert Camus' The Plague.

"I tried to figure out what that encounter would have been like," says Jones, about middle and upper classes from south Winnipeg mingling with lower classes in the northern part of the city.

"I think in some instances it must have been a pulling of people's world views across the normal barriers that existed between the classes.

"Because most people agree that Winnipeg was a very ethnically divided city back then. Those boundaries meant people had very little interaction across class."

Bill Redekop is a Winnipeg writer.