Lessons From Past Pandemics

Current pandemic is unparalleled in our lifetime, but it’s hardly unprecedented

This fall brought a new semester – and new ways of learning – for students of all ages, from primary classrooms to virtual university lecture halls. Although COVID-19 has been a first in our lifetime, earlier outbreaks on and off campus offer potential lessons for today, from quarantining and curtailing group activities, to keeping kids safe at school, to wearing personal protective equipment.

Since COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic on March 11, many people have referred to “unprecedented times.” But Graham Burt, a former archival assistant at U of G’s McLaughlin Library, says while the current pandemic is unparalleled in our lifetime, it’s hardly unprecedented. He explains why in an article published previously by U of G. Here’s an abridged version of his account:

Beginning near the end of the First World War, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20 killed about 55,000 Canadians and at least 50 million people worldwide. Among them were at least 15 students and faculty members at the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) and Macdonald Institute, two of the founding colleges of the University of Guelph.

“It soon became evident that Macdonald Hall must be its own hospital, as one after another the students showed symptoms of the malady and were ordered to stay in bed.” – OAC Review, November 1918

On Oct. 2, 1918, OAC students and staff learned that a student, Geoffrey Howard Scott, had died. Training with the Canadian Engineers that summer in Quebec, the 20-year-old entered hospital in late September after appearing “very ill and delirious.” Flu led to bacterial pneumonia, and he died five days later.

A Pandemic Sweeps Through Campus

By mid-October, half of the student body of 300 people had fallen ill. Those with serious symptoms were sent to hospital, but most were tended on campus. The whole of “Upper Hunt” in Moreton Lodge (the predecessor building to Johnston Hall) and a few rooms in Macdonald Hall were converted into hospital rooms, with patients assessed by doctors and nurses from town.

Lieutenant Roy Vining
Lieutenant Roy Vining

OAC president George Creelman cancelled lectures for a week. Healthy students were either sent home or quarantined in residence. A few Macdonald Institute students volunteered as nurses and cooks in city hospitals. Campus events, including student-run concerts, plays, dances and athletics, were cancelled or postponed.

Within a few weeks, students and faculty returned to campus, and classes and events resumed. Reporting on a postponed sophomore dance finally held in mid-November, an article in the OAC Review said, “Not only was the flu a thing of the past, but the war’s end came with such a grateful relief that we could well afford to make merry.”

The relief was short-lived.

The flu returned in early December, coinciding with the annual provincial winter fair held in Guelph. After several OAC members began showing symptoms, Creelman again cancelled classes, postponed exams and sent students home early for the holiday break.

That winter, the flu claimed three OAC members.

Roy Lindley Vining, a 1914 OAC graduate, had been wounded overseas with the Canadian forces. In fall 1918, he became a dairy specialist and lecturer in animal husbandry with the college. On Dec. 19, a week after attending the winter fair, the 31-year-old died of the flu at Guelph General Hospital.

Walter Herbert Scott
Walter Herbert Scott

That month, Walter Herbert Scott, a 1916 OAC graduate and physics professor on campus, had volunteered to tend students with flu symptoms. Scott died on Jan. 8, 1919, leaving his wife and seven-month-old daughter.

The final OAC victim of the first flu wave was student Harold “Lindsay” McLaughlin, who died on Feb. 14, 1919.

By mid-February, it seemed that the flu had passed for good.

“At first it was rumoured and then it became only too true: the ‘flu’ was with us again.”

– OAC Review, January 1920

In January 1920, an article in the Guelph daily newspaper reported the death from pneumonia of Murray Fallowdown, an OAC short-course student. Four days later, another college student, George James Tocher, also succumbed to pneumonia. Doctors realized that their pneumonia was only a contributory cause of death. Influenza was back.

Campus Turned Hospital

Writing about Macdonald Hall on campus, the OAC Review reported that “the drawing room was quickly commandeered and in a few hours was completely transformed into a hospital. When more cases were discovered, the library was used as a ward.”

Unlike in 1918, both Macdonald Institute and OAC remained open. Lectures and exams continued, and even OAC’s annual Conversat ball was held.

On Jan. 30, Macdonald Institute lost its first and only student to the pandemic. Sophomore Kate Morton Sinclair was admitted to hospital after developing double pneumonia and died Jan. 30.

John “Walter” Rutherford Dawson, a short-course OAC student, was also admitted to hospital, where he developed acute pneumonia and died Jan. 31.

Kate Morton Sinclair
Kate Morton Sinclair

Between Feb. 1 and Feb. 2, four more OAC members died: students Roy “Victor” Wood, Lorne Victor McGee and Douglas Edward Petty-piece; and Walter Lawton Iveson, a professor of chemistry and geology.

Oscar Wilbur Bennett, a 1916 OAC grad, had also been wounded overseas before returning to Canada, where he became a lecturer in the poultry department. He contracted flu and then pneumonia and died Feb. 4.

Within almost two weeks, seven students and two faculty members in OAC and the Macdonald Institute died during the second wave of the Spanish flu. In all, the pandemic claimed the lives of 15 students and faculty, ranging in age from 17 to 32.

Compared with the influenza pandemic of 1918-20, wrote Burt, COVID-19 has been met with improved medical research, health care and medicine. Scientists have a better understanding of how viruses act and spread – knowledge that has led to improved medicine, hygiene practices and general preventive measures. As well, technological advancements give us up-to-date news and instant communications and the ability to continue to learn and work at home.

Although no two pandemics are the same, lessons from yesterday can inform today. History warns us to be proactive against epidemics. Viruses may be invisible to us, but they can be fatal and must be taken seriously. Pandemics can overwhelm hospitals and medical professionals. Protective measures must be implemented early. Halting the spread is a shared responsibility.

The 1918-20 pandemic discussed in Burt’s account was hardly the last outbreak of infectious disease to upend lives on campus and off in the following century.

Not The First Closing Of Public Amenities

In an article published this year in The Conversation, U of G history professor Tara Abraham wrote about how Ontario’s worst polio epidemic in summer 1937 prompted school closings and left Toronto playgrounds and beaches deserted.

Polio typically struck during the summer, meaning students lost just a few weeks; COVID-19 affected schooling for weeks earlier this year, with potentially more disruptions to come.

Walter Iveson (front right) with the College Quartet, 1918.
Walter Iveson (front right) with the College Quartet, 1918.

In 1937, parents feared children risking infection. Today, parental anxiety over COVID-19 stems partly from infection fears (albeit much lower than polio infection in children) and partly from work-life stress over caring for and homeschooling their kids.

“Mask-wearing was embraced by the American public as ‘an emblem of public-spiritedness and discipline.’”

Catherine Carstairs

As with earlier disease outbreaks, wrote Abraham, back-to-school this fall has required parents to balance their sense of collective responsibility for ensuring public health and their personal responsibility for their own mental health and the health of their children.

For kids returning to the classroom, masks are now as much a part of the back-to-school ensemble as backpacks and lunch bags. Mask-wearing has also become a fact of life for many of their parents in workplaces and other public spaces.

Mask-wearing Is Nothing New

Again, that’s nothing new. In another article this summer in The Conversation, history professor Catherine Carstairs wrote that medical mask-wearing has a long history – going all the way back to the 17th-century plague. During the 1918 flu epidemic, cities around the world passed mandatory masking orders.

Wrote Carstairs, “Historian Nancy Tomes argues that mask-wearing was embraced by the American public as ‘an emblem of public-spiritedness and discipline.’” That view was hardly universal in 1918-20. Many Canadians were reluctant to wear masks and questioned their effectiveness. At the same time, Japanese embraced mask-wearing during the Spanish flu and again in the early years of this century with outbreaks of SARS and avian influenza.

In Canada today, controversies over masks continue, with complaints over lack of comfort and perceived ineffectiveness or concerns that masks impede communications for some people. As a visual representation of the threat of COVID, wrote Carstairs, masks can make people more fearful.

Still, she said, support for mask-wearing appears to be growing in Canada. If earlier outbreaks from the 1918-20 flu pandemic to the 1937 polio crisis teach us anything, it’s that we all must be proactive and that we all have a part to play in ensuring health – our own and that of others around us.