Ghosts of a pandemic past
When the historian Alfred Crosby’s seminal 1976 book, Epidemic and Peace, 1918, was republished in 1989, it was given a catchier title: America’s Forgotten Pandemic. While the current pandemic has brought renewed interest in the “Great Influenza,” it was never really forgotten. After all, it circled the globe in successive waves, infected a third of the population, and accounted for more than 50 million deaths. The scale and depth of that earlier scourge have prompted many comparisons with COVID‑19. Some of these examinations have been ill informed and haphazard; others have been thorough and thoughtful. Observed similarities have included physical-distancing measures to flatten the curve, health care disparities among minority groups, burdens on front-line workers, and the politics of masks. Then, like now, some communities were simply stretched to their limits.
We can see all of these elements in Ruth Holmes Whitehead’s Nova Scotia and the Great Influenza Pandemic, 1918–1920. Although the publication of this book is timely, it was not rushed into production. Holmes Whitehead began work on the project in 2017, and her research helped to support a virtual exhibit organized by the Nova Scotia Museum that commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the pandemic. Holmes Whitehead, a distinguished curator emeritus with the museum, describes herself as a compiler and editor, since her book draws on material gathered by dozens of contributors. A relatively small amount of new copy is interspersed among fully transcribed newspaper articles, excerpts from books and magazines, personal communications, and a selection of other archival records. The book is based on the idea that short individual accounts, however fragmentary, can provide a “vivid sense of history” that other approaches omit. It makes its contribution through its intensely local focus.
Some compelling descriptions emerge from a close reading of the material collected here, including the incredible sacrifices made by women. One passage, drawn from the memoir of Myrtle Chappell, describes how a mother in Chignecto went from “house to house to help out,” despite being pregnant. Neighbours saw her young daughter “carrying hot soup and hot tea to houses and setting them on the doorsteps”— a kindness that is surely familiar to some people today. The mother wore a scarf soaked with disinfectant around her face and “kept brandy in her mouth” as she provided care to the ill.
The afflicted needed a lot of support, and this meant a lot of labour. When influenza took hold in Cape Breton, for example, there were not enough nurses to provide the necessary care, and the situation grew even worse as health care workers fell ill themselves. Some communities were quickly in dire straits. Lockeport had more than 300 cases at one point — a third of its population. Conditions were so bad that W. H. Hattie, the provincial health officer, “sent out an urgent call for nurses” on October 13, 1918. “It is plain that Nova Scotia is not going to escape some degree of ravage from the disease in spite of all that the provincial and local health authorities may do in the way of precautionary and curative measures,” the Sydney Daily Post reported.
Other tragedies, including the deaths of Mi’kmaw children at Millbrook that same month, are gently recorded in the evidence. One heartbreaking account is of a six-week-old boy who passed away, as well as girls aged seventeen months, two years, and five years. Their deaths are noted, but we do not learn anything about the nature of their care. What did the physician responsible, H. V. Kent, do for these young patients? Did they go to hospital or were they attended to at home? Regrettably, the sources do not provide answers to these questions, and Holmes Whitehead herself provides little analysis.
Elsewhere, we learn that the local board of health decided on October 23, 1918, “to not admit Indians to the Hospital” in Truro, citing the federal government’s responsibility “to care for them in need and sickness.” This is a deeply revealing moment — an illustration of how First Nations were caught in a jurisdictional dispute that had a direct impact on their health care and a reminder that adequate health care services for Indigenous people remain a significant challenge more than a century later. The delivery of those services is bound up with treaty rights and obligations, which are often overshadowed by rights and obligations that pertain to resource projects. Again, more analysis could have properly taken up this tension.
Nova Scotia and the Great Influenza Pandemic, 1918–1920 also offers a glimpse into the virus’s impact on the province’s historic Black population. Influenza appeared in Beechville, a small settlement founded following the War of 1812, in September 1918. It killed a dozen people, including several infants and toddlers with surnames — Dorrington, Hill, Munro, Lopie — that are familiar to those who have researched the Halifax County community. In fact, the deaths in Beechville were among the earliest of the pandemic’s “murderous” second wave. “This was the beginning of the rollcall of the dead,” Holmes Whitehead writes. “It has been estimated that for every one to four deaths here, there were one hundred people ill. Using this as a general guideline, if Halifax County had almost five hundred or more deaths, then there were at least fifty thousand souls, in this one county alone, who were stricken with it.”
Of course, that 50,000 figure assumes the maximum numbers; there could have been as few as 12,500 cases in Halifax County. I point this out because it is among several minor frustrations I have with the book. The structure, for one thing, results in some repetition, and excerpts and details appear in more than one chapter. There are also some random inclusions. The chapter on Digby County, for instance, reprints a recruitment poster for the No. 2 Construction Battalion for Colored Men of Canada — from 1916. The caption suggests that “overt or subtle racism . . . can also be seen in death records for Black persons during this period,” but an actual example from those records would have served as a better illustration than a nod to this country’s only segregated non-combatant unit. Another oddity is a grave marker for William Jordan in the chapter on Guysborough County; Jordan did not die of influenza, though three others from his Eight Island Lake community did. Cumulatively, these and other small faults detract from the work.
Nonetheless, this is a valuable book that researchers will mine for years to come. Although the sources remain imperfect and incomplete, there is no doubt that Holmes Whitehead and those who supported the larger project have provided a wonderful starting point for further study of how communities responded to the Great Influenza. Anybody perusing this book today or in the near future will surely reflect on their own experience living through a pandemic. Perhaps readers will also find a sense of reassurance that a great threat to public health can be met through a robust collective response.