Fighting the Spanish Lady of 1918: Remedies, Cures and Preventatives, Part 2

January 16, 2018

Here is Part 2 of blogpost on the Pandemic of 1918.

Poster Issued Board of Health-1918-na-4548-5

Living in the 21st century we take the scientific and medical wonders of our age for granted. Let us return to the year 1918 when the deadliest influenza pandemic in history, the Spanish Flu, rampages around the globe killing in massive numbers.

The “Spanish lady”, as it is morbidly nicknamed, focuses its attack on young adults age 21 to 34 years of age and children. The elderly escape for the most part, seemingly because of some immunity from previous flu viruses.

The Influenza of 1918 is a killer virus that attacks the respiratory system and saps the immune system. Most deaths result from complications such as pneumonia. An affected person exhibits symptoms in the morning, is sick by noon, and dies before nightfall.

The healthcare system of 1918 is drastically different than the one we live in today. Hospitals are small and located in larger centers. Few doctors and nurses are available especially in those smaller communities. Antibiotics to fight infection from flu complications such as pneumonia do not exist. Flu vaccines do not exist. The initial first step in the creation of a vaccine, the isolation of human influenza viruses, does not occur until 1933. Even if the vaccines existed in 1918, the public health system did not have a distribution system to deliver vaccine to the populace.

Quarantine is the normal preventative measure implemented by health authorities. In this case it fails. The mailman continues to deliver the mail, the milkman keeps delivering milk door-to-door effectively circumventing the isolation of the victims and unknowingly spreading the disease from house to house.

People desperately seek remedies or cures. Many of these concoctions are cooked at home on the stove, then dispensed to the family members. Some of the more exotic ones include,

  • Drinking alcohol
  • Smoking opium
  • Tobacco smoking
  • Ingesting tiny amounts of strychnine (a deadly poison)
  • Sipping kerosene
  • Drinking cinnamon with tea or coffee
  • Eating red-pepper sandwiches
  • Drinking something called Bulgarian blood tea
  • A mixture of cinnamon, tobacco, alcohol, goose grease, and turpentine
  • According to one belief, the steel particles in a shotgun placed under a victim’s bed would draw out the fever.

Preventative measures to stop the spread of the disease also involved a myriad of strange steps.

  • The wearing of surgical masks. There was much controversy as to the effectiveness of these. These were just loosely fitting cloth unlike today’s tight fitting sanitary versions
  • Tin drinking cups in public places replaced by disposable paper ones.
  • Smoked herrings worn around the neck.
  • Bags of garlic were hung around children’s necks to keep the disease away.
  • Sulphur sprinkled in shoes.
  • Vinegar packs tied to stomachs
  • Cucumber slices tied to ankles.
  • Carrying a potato in each pocket.
  • Breathing through the nose.
  • Chewing food well
  • Avoiding the wearing of tight-fitting clothes, shoes and gloves.
  • Bodies of victims are buried covered in raw, sliced onions from head to toe.
  • Voodoo charms along with chants of, “Sour, sour, vinegar V, keep the sickness off of me.”

The scientific community of 1918 struggled to provide an answer, so society sought its own solutions, however weird. Statistics are not available concerning the success or lack of success for these cures and preventative measures. In point of fact they did nothing to alleviate the pain and suffering.

Make sure you and yours take advantage of the modern miracle of a vaccine. There is no excuse. It will help protect you and others. Our ancestors living in 1918 died for lack of a vaccine.



Alberta and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, Part 1

January 10, 2018

Author’s Note: This is an important and large topic. For this reason I am presenting it in two parts.


Camp Funston military base in Kansas where first case documented in March 1918. Photo: original US Military now Public Domain

The misery of the Great War ended at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of November 1918. Soldiers from Alberta trickled home with the last of them returning by late 1919. These servicemen wanted to come home and pick up their lives where they left off, but nature had other plans.

If you tour older cemeteries in Alberta you will notice in the period from 1918 to 1920 many graves are of young persons. Once you realize this was the time of the great influenza pandemic, these names shout out the impact to the reader of the inscriptions on the silent stones.

In the summer of 1918 influenza ravaged the world with the Spanish Flu. The society of 1918 had no vaccines for influenza, or any other disease for that matter. Influenza is incurable even in the 21st century. The impact on the Province of Alberta and the world was unimaginable. An estimated 20 to 40 million people died of the Spanish Flu worldwide. People could be healthy in the morning, sick by noon, and deceased by evening.

Health officials named this strain the “Spanish” Flu, not because it originated in that country, but because Spain was neutral during the period 1914 to 1918; better statistics and reports emanated from that country due to lack of censorship. Other countries repressed the true extent of the pandemic to maintain morale during wartime. More people died from the flu than soldiers killed in the war.

Symptoms included, severe headache, high fever; chills, aches, and pains in the back and limbs. The flu caused severe problems breathing because it attacked the lungs. Those who didn’t perish in the first few days died later of complications such as pneumonia. Persons between the ages of 20 and 40 were the most susceptible and the majority of the deaths occurred in this age group. To this day no one knows the reason for this.

In the early 1990’s Canadian scientists located several 1918 flu victims buried in a permafrost cemetery in Norway. Bits of viral RNA from their preserved flesh enabled scientists to reconstruct the virus. Scientists in a Winnipeg lab used tissues from First World War soldiers to restore the virus. All this research occurred in high security medical labs. The goal is to find a vaccine. So far they have been unsuccessful.

Influenza, like the common cold, has no known cure. Advice given by health authorities of the era included, wearing of masks to prevent the spread of the disease. Avoiding public gatherings, and public places like theatres and schools was encouraged. Health officials recommended patients drink lots of water, limit exposure to cold, and get lots of fresh air.

The Spanish Flu came in two distinct waves, first in the summer of 1918, and then the spring of 1919. Remarkably it disappeared as fast as it arrived.

Unknown to them, Canadian soldiers returning home brought the flu virus with them. By the end of the pandemic, an estimated 50,000 Canadians were dead out of a population of about 1,500,00 persons. Some smaller villages were almost wiped out. Alberta had a population of about 500,000 in 1918, over 4,300 Albertans died from the flu. In the United States 675,000 people died from the flu out of a population of around 7,000,000.

The flu terrified the populace of Alberta and the rest of Canada. Almost everyone who went outdoors wore a face mask. In fact on October 25, 1918 the government of Alberta ordered all citizens to wear a mask when they left their homes. Closed communities, like remote villages, were most vulnerable.

Albert Farmers-Sp-flu-alberta-field-PublicDomain

Alberta farmers wearing masks. Photo: Public Domain

Aboriginal communities were some of the hardest hit. The flu decimated the First Nation populations. Their settlements were small and close-knit enabling rapid spread of the disease. Many of them had not been previously exposed to influenza and thus were vulnerable. Medical care did not exist in the settlements, often they were left alone to suffer the ravages.

In Alberta gatherings of more than six people were banned. It was a criminal offence to shake hands. Public areas were closed. These included schools, theatres and any other public buildings or facilities. Throughout Canada hearses filled the streets. Hospitals were overflowing and doctors did not know what to do.

People tried everything and anything to defeat the flu. Some of the more exotic cures were smoked herrings worn around the neck, drinking alcohol, eating garlic, raw onions, drinking mixtures of hot milk, ginger and black pepper. Quarantine was implemented to no avail.

Antibiotics were not available to fight the secondary bacterial pneumonia. This compounded the impact of the flu and many deaths were from complications such as pneumonia.

The reason the Spanish Flu caused rapid death has only recently been explained. It seems this strain of influenza filled the lung tissue with liquid preventing oxygen from reaching the rest of the body.

The question for scientists is, could this happen today? The answer seems to be a resounding yes. Science today has technology to develop vaccines for various strains of influenza, but to date they have been unsuccessful in finding a vaccine for the Spanish Flu virus of 1918-1919. Might this virus reappear? There is no reason to think it could not.

Society in 2010 has several advantages over the society of 1918, better hygiene, and the ability, perhaps, to create a specific vaccine for the virus. In addition we have better medical technology and facilities. Lastly, antibiotics are available to battle bacterial complications such as pneumonia.

The impact to Alberta and society in general would be significant. People would still get sick, but it should be possible to minimize fatalities. Health authorities in Alberta and worldwide must remain vigilant.

Further Reading

Wikipedia – Pandemic Influenza History

Alberta in the 20th Century, Volume Four: The Great War and Its Consequences, Chapter Two by Stephani Keer, pp326-341, CanMedia Inc., 1995

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, Gina Kolata, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1999

CBC News Online, 1918 Flu Epidemic, Dan Bjarnason and Robin Rowland, January 16, 2007

Pandemic, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Foundation of Canada, 2009

A City Faces an Epidemic, McGinnis, J.P. Dickin, Alberta History, 24, No.4 (Autumn 1976, p.1-11

Alberta Formed, Alberta Transformed, Vol.2, 1919: A Year of Extraordinary Difficulty, Bright, David, University of Alberta Press, 2006


Amelia Earhart: Aviation mystery

December 30, 2017
AmelieEarhart-70th Anniversary of Last Flight

Commemorative cover issued for the 70th anniversary of her last flight.

Amelia Earhart the greatest female aviator of all time and a female icon disappeared on July 2, 1937 without a trace. She and navigator Fred Noonan were flying from New Guinea to Howland Island in the Pacific on the final leg a their attempt to circumnavigate the globe. At the time she was world famous and a celebrity idol.

Born July 24, 1897, Amelia had a thirst for flying. Between 1930 and 1935 she set seven women’s speed and distance aviation records.

Amelia became the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean on May 20, 1932. She also was first aviator to fly solo from Honolulu, Hawaii to Oakland, California on June 11, 1935. These were just two of the significant aviation records she set during her career.

One of her goals was to circumnavigate the globe as a solo pilot. She would still need a navigator. All her planning aimed toward that achievement.

In 1937 she began final preparations. At the time she was at the height of her fame. Amelia was a feminist icon inspiring thousands of female aviators. Her charismatic appeal stemmed from her independence, persistence, coolness under pressure, her courage and goal oriented career.


Standing under her Electra in March 1937. Photo: Underwood & Underwood, Public Domain

Amelia did marry publisher George Putnam but they never had children. He was referred to as “Mr. Earhart” and supported her in her career. She retains lasting fame even today some 80 years later.

So what happened and how did she disappear? No one really knows the full answer but there are many theories that have developed over the years.

The most prevalent theories are, Crash & Sink, Gardner Island (Nikumaroro now), and Japanese capture. The first crash and sink is one most historians accept with death resulting on impact or shortly after. The Gardner Island theory says they ditched their plane in the waters off the island and survived only to eventually perish when rescue did not come. Some believe the Japanese military captured them and executed them. There is no firm proof of the last.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) strongly believes in the Gardner Island scenario and has so far sent ten expeditions to investigate. Their extensive research has produced archaeological and anecdotal evidence supporting this theory over the others. It’s possible that some day we will discover the truth about the fate of Earhart and Noonan we’ll just have to wait and see.

The Greatest Generation

November 5, 2015
One of many cemeteries in Europe where Canada's war dead lie.

One of many cemeteries in Europe where Canada’s war death lie.

On November 11, 2015 it will be 70 years since the end of the Second World War 1939-1945 and over 100 years since the beginning of the Great War 1914-1919.

Tom Brokaw’s  famous book, “The Greatest Generation”, is in my opinion one of the best reads on war and sacrifice. It is a collection of stories from veterans and their wartime experiences. It’s not about generals and strategy, but rather about ordinary people and how they stood up and fought for our freedom against the evil forces seeking to destroy and conquer the world. Although American it applies to all who were of that generation. These people grew up in the Depression of the 1930s and did what had to be done in the 1940s. They made it possible for us to have the society we have today. The following quote from the book says it all

“They came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War and went on to build modern America – men and women whose everyday lives of duty, honor, achievement, and courage gave us the world we have today.”

These men returned from the horrors of war to short-lived celebration and then resumed their lives as best they could. For years they never talked about their experiences. All that changed after fifty years when they realized age was killing them off at a rapid rate. They didn’t want to tell their stories to glamourize war, but so that we would never forget. Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to know some older vets who told me of their experiences. It is incredible to see a vet tear up when he remembers a buddy from all those years ago. They remember the friends they lost like it was yesterday such was the horror of it. To all the vets who tell the stories thanks for letting us know what it was really like.

To younger people if you want to know about wars don’t read the accounts of generals and politicians, read the stories of ordinary people, the soldiers who went through the mud, the fire, and the blood. For Canadians there is “Testaments of Honour: Personal Histories of Canada’s War Veterans” by Blake Heathcote which I highly recommend.

Other books to read are Stephen Ambrose’s “Citizen Soldiers” or Cornelius Ryan’s “The Longest Day”. These books are far more interesting and enlightening then some general’s memoirs. The movie “Saving Private Ryan” which revolves around the D-Day landings is one of the most realistic war movies of all time. Director Steven Spielberg screened it for veterans of D-Day to get their input. To a man they liked it, but said it lacked one thing, the smell. They told him the smell of blood, gore, death and cordite from shells was overpowering during the combat. They also told him the noise level pierced them to the very soul. These were the things they still remembered all those years later.

When you attend or watch the Remembrance Day ceremonies and you see all the old vets close your eyes and visualize them as young boys and men in their late teens and early twenties preparing to charge off the landing craft into the hellstorm of machine gun fire and shelling. While you’re contemplating that image ask yourself if you could stand up and do what needed to be done.

Growing up in the Cold War

December 14, 2014

The museum in Albuquerque, NM. photo by Steve Davis

During a recent road trip I visited the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, New Mexico. More about the museum itself in a future post, but the gift shop had some old government publications for sale. I picked up one titled, “Survival Under Atomic Attack”. This is a printed by the Office of Civil Defense, State of California in October 1950. California reprinted it from a federal government brochure.

It is an extremely interesting document from the Cold War era. The government tried to prepare and reassure the populace by telling them it was actually possible to survive an all-out nuclear exchange between the USSR and the United States. Not only that they actually told people that life would go on much as before. Reading this brochure I found it so asinine that I actually laughed out loud at a lot of the contents. I thought I’d share some of the ‘deep thoughts’ found in the booklet.

On the very first page it states,


you can live through an atom bomb raid
and you won’t have to have a Geiger counter,
Protective clothing, or special training in order to do it.

The secrets of survival are:




Forgive my skepticism but okay folks whatever you say.

Then there is a page titled “Kill the Myths” I found this just absurd. Here it is,

Myth #1 “Atomic Weapons will not destroy the Earth. Not even hydrogen bombs will blow the earth apart or kill us all by radioactivity.”

Yeah right they’ll just kill most humans, animals, and all other life and leave the planet uninhabitable.

Myth #2 “Doubling Bomb Power does not double destruction.”

This is total bullshit. Nuclear weapons would be detonated above their targets causing enormous damage. The governments who control these weapons have done extensive testing and know full well that this statement is an outright lie.

Myth #3 “Radioactivity is not the bombs greatest threat.”

Maybe not over the short-term, but over the long-term it is the greatest threat. It would linger and as proven by studies of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagaski, do damage for generations. Why do you think those x-ray techs in the dentist’s office run out of the room when they take those shots of your teeth? Why do they drap that lead vest around you and your vital parts? It’s because of the radiation. Granted it’s only in small dosages from x-rays, but nuclear weapons emit massive amounts of radiation when they explode.

Reading this document at this time in our history is an amusing peek into the mindset of those in power during one of the most frightening periods in recent history. As a child who grew up during the Cold War the contents of this document are beyond comical. It shocks me that we actually believed this stuff. I guess it reassured us that we shouldn’t have been scared. Hell no in reality most of us were scared shit-less!

My personal philosophy in the event of an all-out nuclear exchange was simply that I would prefer not to survive thank you. Let others deal with the nuclear winter and fall-out that would affect the Earth for thousands of years. Let others try to live on without law and order. Let others live on without the benefits of modern civilization like drinking water, heat in winter, and food. The dead would be better off, of that I have no doubt.


National Museum of Nuclear Science & History
Alburquerque, New Mexico

The Way We Were 1964: Fifty years ago.

May 21, 2014

1964-the-beatles-life-270In this year of 2014 it is now fifty years since some of us lived through 1964. Here are some interesting things about this important year. Most of this information and factual data is from American sources, but at the end you will find some tidbits on Canada. Enjoy and please leave a comment about something you remember from that year.

What it cost:
Average yearly income $5,880
Gallon of gas .25c
Gallon of milk $1.06
Loaf of bread .21c
1st class postage stamp 5c (to mail a letter)
Magazine subscription (51 issues) $5.00
Pair of shoes $9.95
19” TV black & white $139.95

1st appearance of Beatles on Ed Sullivan Show
Shooting starts for Star Trek pilot on television

Hit singles:
Baby Love – The Supremes
Can’t Buy Me Love – The Beatles
Hard Day’s Night – The Beatles
House of the Rising Sun – The Animals
I Get Around – The Beach Boys
Pretty Woman – Roy Orbison
Rag Doll – The Four Seasons

Movies at the theatre:
Goldfinger – James Bond movie with Sean Connery
Mary Poppins
The Pink Panther – with Peter Sellers
My Fair Lady

Deaths of note:
General Douglas MacArthur – commander of the Pacific operations in WW II.
Jim Reeves – country star (plane crash)
Harpo Marx – comedian – part of the famous Marx Brothers. He was the one who never spoke on screen.
Gracie Allen – comedienne – wife of George Burns – Burns and Allen comedy team
Herbert Hoover – former President of the U.S. – just before Franklin Roosevelt.

Births of those who would become famous later on. Who knew:
Nicolas Cage – actor
Matt Dillon – actor
Rob Lowe – actor
Sandra Bullock – actor
Keanu Reeves – actor
(remember all these will turn 50 years of age this year)

Notable Factoids or Events:
Cigarette smoking is enjoyed by 60% of population.
U.S. Government reports, “that smoking many be hazardous to one’s health”.
Hasbro introduces the G.I. Joe doll.
Ford Mustang goes on sale ($2368 base price).
U.S begins bombing of North Vietnam which dramatically ramps up the Vietnam War. An LBJ decision.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is published, written by Roald Dahl.
Sony introduces first VCR video recorder.
Computer mouse invented, but not generally available until much later.

Notable Canadian Facts from 1964:
Prime Minister is Lester Pearson (Liberal Party).
Social Insurance Number cards issued for first time to Canadians.
Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup (over Detroit Red Wings). Most recent win for Leafs was 1967.
First Tim Horton’s donut shop opens in Hamilton, Ontario. (This is the one I like the best.)

The Great War 1914 – 1919 – Centennial

January 2, 2014


The year 2014 marks 100 years since The Great War, better known as World War I began. The war to end all wars in fact spawned the even more destructive Second World War. This year will mark 75 years since its violent forces swept the world.

As a genealogist and historian I have long been fascinated by the cause and events of these two conflicts. Both these wars changed the world forever in many ways.

What caused this war of 1914? Europe at the time consisted of many ambitious countries who were allied through treaty with many other nations. All these nations had dreams of grandeur through expansion and imperialism. The British, French, Germans, Russians, Italians, and Ottoman empires were all competing economically and militarily. When the Archduke was assassinated one blamed the other. Foolish pride and inflexibility carried the day. Military forces were massed on borders, ultimatums were issued, and finally attacks took place. The domino effect resulted in a world war. Kings, dictators and politicians had their war into which young men were the fodder to fuel the fires.

My grandfather like most Canadians enlisted in the Canadian Army when war was declared in 1914. Young men rushed to serve King and country and to do their duty. To many it was a great adventure. When they discovered the terrible reality of modern warfare the adventure turned to survival. These young men did their duty and served valiantly, but at a horrible cost.

Has mankind learned its lesson? Much as I’d like to believe so it has not. Wars constantly rage throughout our world today. Fortunately none have escalated into a worldwide conflict, but we have had our near misses, Korea, The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War to name a few examples.

We must understand our history and learn from it, otherwise we are sure to repeat our mistakes. Nations like human beings are driven by foolish pride, nationalist goals, racism, jealousies and ambitions of domination.

The major difference in this world of the 21st century is that mankind possesses the means to make itself extinct, nuclear weapons and weaponized diseases being two major methods of mass destruction.

This centennial year should be a challenge to all of us to learn more about our human history and to open our eyes to the mistakes of the past.

More posts to follow on World War I.


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