The 1918 Spanish Flu: Calgary's first pandemic

Those now in isolation, in mourning, under care or providing care during the COVID-19 pandemic can draw comfort knowing that others in our city once went through similar circumstances.

While we are experiencing COVID-19, we can take lessons from the past

A Provincial Board of Health poster about the influenza epidemic is seen in 1918. We can pinpoint the exact moment the Spanish Flu arrived in Calgary. (Glenbow Archives)

It's unusual to be able to pinpoint where and when a pandemic hits a city, but in the case of the Spanish Flu of 1918, it's fully documented how it hit Calgary. Looking at that story today, we see some interesting parallels, and some mistakes we can avoid.

The arrival

At three o'clock in the morning of Oct. 2, 1918, a group of local soldiers returning from the front lines of the First World War arrived at the Canadian Pacific Railway station — on the present site of the Calgary Tower. Such arrivals were becoming common, but this one was different. A military guard awaited the train.

Calgary's medical health officer, Dr. Cecil Stanley Mahood, had been warned that several men aboard were infected. He escorted the troops to the isolation hospital, where infectious cases were typically sent to protect patients. You can still see the remains of that old building, known as the Rundle Ruins, in Stampede Park.

The isolation hospital (foreground, centre) was converted into the emergency hospital during the Spanish Flu pandemic. Portions of its sandstone outer walls now comprise the Rundle Ruins in Stampede Park. Victoria School, which served as a convalescent ward, is visible a short distance to the west (background, centre left). (Glenbow Archives)

Mahood was from Huron County in Ontario, and he had studied and worked in Chicago and Denver before arriving in Calgary. He was the Dr. Deena Hinshaw of his day — the person who led the charge in public health and to whom people listened.

Then, like now, medical officials made public statements about health. 

"The disease is disseminated by the secretions of the nose, mouth and respiratory passages," Dr. Mahood stated later that day, recommending to the public the "avoidance of crowded places [such] as theatres and public meetings." 

He also called for a ban on "promiscuous coughing and spitting," much like we have all recently been taught to cough into our bended arms.

The doctor concluded his statement with an appeal to civic duty.

"Each citizen must realize that he or she is a part of the machinery that will help to keep this disease from invading and spreading through our city," he wrote.

The soldiers recovered, but it was already too late.

Other people in Calgary soon caught the flu or arrived in the city already infected, and the virus spread quickly. It was what we'd call community spread today, as back then they couldn't trace transmission as effectively as we can and do.

The first death

Many sufferers developed pneumonia, which can be fatal. 

The city's first death occurred on Oct. 7, when Hazen Spearin died of pneumonia in the isolation hospital. 

The disease continued to spread.

Within days, a worried Dr. Mahood, who had taken charge of most of the various elements of the city's fight against the flu, ordered the homes of those infected to be placarded and quarantined. These days, we wouldn't put a sign on a home, but we do ask people to self-isolate. 

As there are concerns with authority and the rule of law today, so was there then. The provincial health act gave Calgary's medical chief no authority to make the orders he did — and he knew it. But he pressed ahead, and within a week, MLAs had amended the legislation to authorize Mahood's actions.

Still the disease spread, and action was taken on two of the issues we are dealing with today. 

Telephone operators wear masks in High River during the flu pandemic. During the pandemic, operators provided an essential service analogous to those maintaining the internet during COVID-19. Alberta Government Telephones was a forerunner of Telus. From left: Gladys Stephenson, Cora Stephenson, Addie McDonald and Annie Grisdale. (Glenbow Archives)

In an Oct. 12 bulletin, Mahood called on those caring for the sick to wear masks — what we now call personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical staff.

And he went further.

"In case of epidemic," he wrote, "every means must be taken to prevent people congregating." 

This was social distancing before social distancing.

That weekend saw a mass labour rally, a concert in the Palliser Hotel ballroom, and countless family and friends gathering for Thanksgiving dinners. By the end of the week, the doctor concluded the city had an epidemic on its hands.

Schools and churches around Calgary were closed, and so were cabarets, dance halls, poolrooms, and theatres.

Building capacity

To expand the number of health-care providers, school nurses became public nurses, and teachers from both school boards were enlisted.

Mahood had the isolation hospital fitted out as an emergency hospital. When it filled up, a second flu hospital was set up at the city's technical college (later renamed SAIT) in its then home at Colonel Walker School. You can still see that building in the Inglewood neighbourhood.

Soldiers were treated at the Sarcee Camp military hospital near present-day Westhills mall.

Then, like now, tents on the grounds of the emergency hospitals added capacity, and Victoria School, which still stands in the Beltline, was turned into a convalescent ward for recovering patients.

Back in 1918, sourcing PPE was a challenge. As masks quickly became mandatory for anyone in public places, nurses mass-produced them at Memorial Park Library and sold them to the public at 10 cents each.

Calgarians found them cumbersome, ugly, and even dangerous; if not changed and cleaned regularly, the masks incubated germs. 

This 1915–16 photograph of town planning commission members includes medical health officer Dr. Cecil Stanley Mahood (back row in front of the doorway, to the right of a woman), alderman Annie Gale (third row, third from right, in dark dress with white ruffle), and mayor Michael Copps Costello (front row, second from left). Each of them played a role during the pandemic. The Memorial Park Library in the background was the venue where nurses made masks for sale to the public. (Glenbow Archives)

As the flu continued to sweep across the city, members of the local medical community worked themselves to exhaustion.

That included Dr. Reginald Burton Deane, who, after weeks in charge of the Colonel Walker school/hospital without any relief, asked to be relieved of his responsibilities.

And then there were the nurses.

The war effort had depleted a lot of medical resources and personnel. As an editorialist wrote in the Morning Albertan, "Thousands of people who were prevented because of their sex from doing their bit overseas, can do their bit in this epidemic." 

Those nurses and volunteers faced punishing work schedules, and many of them died.

Supporting Calgarians

To support people quarantined at home, women volunteers from across the city set up makeshift soup kitchens in schools: in Connaught, King Edward, Hillhurst, Riverside and Victoria schools. (Most of those buildings still stand.)

The Good Eats Cafe (on the future site of Olympic Plaza) prepared food for the sick, and women from the Jewish community established a kosher kitchen offering food for anyone who needed it in a building where the city hall complex sits today.

James (Cappy) Smart was Calgary's fire chief from 1898 to 1933. During the pandemic, he co-ordinated the volunteers and vehicles that transported patients and nurses. When he was caught without his mask, Smart explained that he could not give orders if he was wearing one. (Glenbow Archives)

Sadly, there were children whose parents were too sick to care for them, and so a dormitory was created at Stanley Jones School, which remains a landmark in the Renfrew neighbourhood. Orphans went to the Children's Shelter in Ogden, where matron Mildred Clint cared for dozens of youngsters until she herself died.

While the city rallied, there were those who didn't comply with all the health orders.

Court dockets from the time are filled with the names of those caught without the mandatory masks, including two physicians.

Dr. W.J. Chambers was fined the usual one dollar, but the charge against Dr. William Egbert — a former alderman, and the future lieutenant-governor of Alberta, who was the president of the Board of Trade and a member of the Board of Health at the time — was dropped.

Even fire chief James (Cappy) Smart was caught, but he explained that he could not give orders while wearing a mask.

The pandemic hit Calgary at a tumultuous time. Labour unrest, prohibition, a shortage of schools, discord over hospital organization and municipal elections filled the headlines. As well, the war was coming to an end. 

Over October and into early November, thousands of Calgarians had fallen ill, and many had died. But then numbers began to drop. Some of the emergency hospitals were closed.

This led to mistakes and miscalculations.

Second wave

At news of the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, Calgarians pulled down their masks, set caution aside and celebrated wildly.

Pandemic lessons learned from 1918

2 years ago
Duration 4:49
Beware of the second wave. A Calgary history lesson from the 1918 outbreak of H1N1, improperly called the Spanish flu, with Harry Sanders.

With flu cases down sharply, Dr. Mahood soon judged the epidemic over, but he warned of a second wave and grudgingly accepted provincial authorization to lift restrictions. 

Theatres reopened on Nov. 20, with lieutenant-governor R.H. Brett taking a box seat. Children went back to school on Dec. 2, in buildings that had recently been hospitals and soup kitchens. Municipal elections were held.

Mayor M.C. Costello, one of only two physicians to ever hold the office, went down to defeat. Politicians and bean counters started questioning all the money that had been spent on hospitals and compensation for nurses and some volunteers.

And then the second wave hit, just as Mahood had warned.

It affected fewer people in Calgary, but it came with a higher mortality rate.

Dr. John Albert Butterwick (1882–1918) was the first doctor in the city to die as a result of the flu epidemic. Born in MIddlesex, Ont., and educated at the University of Western Ontario, he was twice widowed and died of pneumonia just shy of his 36th birthday. (Courtesy Larry Kettlewell)

The Stanley Jones school was turned into a hospital, where health-care providers worked 12-hour shifts. Labelled a "woman-killing institution" by the Albertan newspaper, Stanley Jones contributed to the fatal toll of caregivers that included Effie Bagnall, Lilly Bush, Winnifred Huggard, Phyllis McCartin, Lillie May Quance and Edna Traunweiser.

The city avoided a gravedigger shortage by seconding waterworks employees to the parks and cemeteries department.

The toll

There were 384 Calgarians confirmed to have died of the Spanish Flu, but given the estimate that 4,000 people died across the province, it's likely that the official city number is too low. But even if the number is accurate, when you consider the fact that Calgary's population at the time was somewhere around 60,000 people, 384 deaths in 1918-1920 would be the equivalent of about 8,000 deaths in 2020, a staggering number.

Many lives were cut short.

Like those of  Dr. John A. Butterwick, the first doctor in the city to die of Spanish flu. The athletes Robert J. Watt (former captain of the YMCA basketball team), Trevor Williams (once captain of the city's Caledonia Football Club), and Edgar Walker (remembered as "an athlete as well as a splendid fellow otherwise" by his Lord Strathcona's Horse regiment comrades). And Susan H. Cartwright, credit manager for a grocery wholesale firm, whom The Albertan memorialized as "an exceptionally able and brainy woman" and as "one of Calgary's foremost business women."

Euphemia (Effie) Bagnall (1870–1918) was a probation officer for the Children's Aid Society, visitor for the Board of Pension Commissioners (Pensions Board, for short) and "one of the best known women in southern Alberta," according to the Calgary Daily Herald. She caught the flu while working as a volunteer nurse and died of pneumonia. (Courtesy of the late Eleanor Lawson)

Former Calgarians also died, including Sir Sam Steele, who commanded Fort Calgary in the 1880s. He died in London. 

But others recovered, including Dr. Rosamond Leacock, Calgary's first pathologist, alderman Alexander McTaggart and alderman Annie Gale. Gale was Calgary's first female city councillor. She had fallen ill while nursing patients at Stanley Jones. 

The legacy

"The influenza epidemic is just about to end," noted The Albertan in January 1919. 

"Now would be a good time to look this epidemic squarely in the face and decide what is to be done if it comes again. Calgary should have learned much by the two visits we have already received."

That sentiment teaches us the value of knowing our history.

Those now in isolation, in mourning, under care or providing care during the COVID-19 pandemic can draw some comfort knowing that others in our city once went through similar circumstances.

Their successes saved lives, their mistakes cost others, and their heroes remain so a century later. As we remember them, others will remember us.

Spanish flu returned in smaller waves during the 1920s, and it might have been the same strain that led to the death of Ida Mahood, wife of Dr. Mahood, in 1922.

Our current COVID-19 pandemic will one day come to an end as well. But while we are still experiencing it, we can take lessons from the past, appreciate our collective resilience and make a better future.


Harry Sanders

Calgary historian

Harry Sanders is a self-employed historical consultant, contract researcher, and freelance writer. From 2006-09, he appeared on CBC Radio as “Harry the Historian”. He served as the Calgary Heritage Authority 2012 Historian Laureate. He has written several books on local history, including 'The Story Behind Alberta Names' and 'Historic Walks of Calgary'.


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