CBC Digital Archives CBC butterfly logo

CBC Archives has a new look: Please go to cbc.ca/archives to access the new site.

The page you are looking at will not be updated.

Influenza: Surviving ‘The Spanish Lady’

The Story

On March 4, 1918, the first case of a new strain of influenza appeared on a U.S. military base in Kansas. Within months, the virus had spread across the continent and on to Europe, where it would infect tens of thousands, including the sick, the elderly and otherwise healthy young people. Before it ran its course the Spanish flu would kill more than 40 million people and affect virtually every country on earth. This CBC Television clip looks at the virus's deadly legacy in one rural Alberta town. When your eyes begin to water and your nose turns blue,if your lips begin to quiver, then you've got the Spanish Flu. This is some of the folk wisdom that sprung up during the global epidemic many came to call the "Spanish Lady." Emerging in the dying days of the First World War, the virus caught an unsuspecting and ill-informed populace fatally off-guard - killing millions in what is considered one of the greatest pandemics in history.To help halt the spread of the virus, most public gathering places were shut down. This left schools closed, public meetings banned and businesses temporarily closed. Whole towns were quarantined, with no one allowed to leave or enter under threat of arrest. Funerals were often skipped and mass burials were a regular occurrence. Some U.S. cities used streetcars as hearses, and bodies were left piled in public halls awaiting burial. Barring a vaccine or therapeutic drugs, doctors of the day prescribed rest, liquids and "a great deal of hope." 

Medium: Television
Program: Canada Now
Broadcast Date: April 10, 2003
Guests: Phyllis Alcorn, Elsie Miller, Irving Platz, Margaret Thomas
Reporter: Mike Vernon
Duration: 6:09
Photo: Provincial Archives of Alberta (A13187)

Did You know?

• Of the estimated 40 million killed worldwide, more than 50,000 died in Canada (1,200 in Toronto alone) while nearly 675,000 more were killed in the U.S. Nearly 19,000 of those died in New York City and deaths were recorded as far as Alaska and Hawaii.
• The World Health Organization says the global death toll may have been closer to 50 million, since an estimated 10 million people may have died in India but were not recorded by officials.
• Despite the Spanish flu's notoriety, doctors at the time didn't regularly collect samples of the virus which means little is known about how - and why - it killed so many with such speed.
• While the first known case of the Spanish flu strain turned up in Camp Funston in Kansas in March 1918, it didn't turn deadly until that fall. This "second wave" began in August 1918, in the French port city of Brest, a major entry point for incoming North American troops.
• Within days, it turned up in other ports in Boston and Sierra Leone. Within weeks, it spread across Europe, jumping from France to Spain, Portugal, Scandinavia, England and Russia.
• More virulent than standard flu strains, the spread of the Spanish flu was accelerated by the rapid movement of Allied forces travelling on ships, cars, trains and trucks. These returning soldiers, many of them sick or flu carriers, brought the virus back to North America after war ended in November.
• Because of military censorship, the actual infection rate among Allied soldiers was a closely guarded wartime secret. The first newspaper reports of the outbreak emerged from Spain, which was a non-combatant in the war and not subject to censorship.
• As a result, the pandemic was quickly dubbed the Spanish flu by the North American media and public.
• Alfred Crosby, author of Epidemic and Peace 1918: America's Forgotten Pandemic, has called the name "a bad rap." "It shouldn't have been called the Spanish flu anymore than it should have been called the Japanese flu".
• By the winter of 1918, the flu had reached Labrador and even remote Alaska, where it decimated the Inuit population.
• About 80 per cent of those who caught the Spanish flu faced the usual three-to-five day illness modern Canadians are familiar with. The remaining 20 per cent developed pneumonia, with half of those dying as a result.
• This unlucky 10 per cent of the population experienced horrifically quick deaths. Their lung tissue filled with fluid, restricting the amount of oxygen in their body.
• In a July 1997, New Yorker magazine article titled "The Dead Zone", U.S. Army pathologist Jeffery Taubenberger said, "These people were drowning."
• "There was so much liquid in the air spaces of their lungs that patients would have bloody fluid coming out of their noses. When they died, it would often drench the bed sheets."
• Densely populated areas - like Toronto - were more susceptible to widespread outbreaks with half of the population tending to get sick. But the flu even spread to rural Canada. In towns like Alliance - which is profiled in this clip - the virus was carried by returning soldiers crossing Canada by train.
• Of the 50,000 killed across the country, 8,700 were killed in Ontario with 5,000 killed in Saskatchewan, and 4,000 in both Alberta and Manitoba. Other provinces, and the North, also suffered deaths in the thousands.
• More Canadians were killed during the Spanish flu outbreak than died in the First World War. In the U.S., the strain killed more Americans than would die in the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined.
• Since the virus was especially deadly among young, healthy adults in their 20s and 30s, thousands of children were left orphaned.
• To hear more about the impact of the pandemic, go to our clip The social chaos of the Spanish flu.


Influenza: Battling The Last Great Virus more