• Men in an Albertan field wearing masks during the Spanish Influenza in the fall of 1918.

    Men in an Albertan field wearing masks during the Spanish Influenza in the fall of 1918.

The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada (University of Toronto Press: 2013) byMark Humphries Pgs.130-131; Chapter 8: The Trail of Infected Armies

In October 1918, Private Victor G. lay struggling to breath, feverish and alone in Halifax’s Station Hospital. That spring he had been conscripted into the army, and had reported for duty in his hometown of Peterborough, Ontario. After being inducted at Kingston that summer, he shipped east to Halifax. At the end of September, Victor caught a cold that grew rapidly worse. Although he tried to carry on, with a fever of 102.5° and a deep, hacking cough he was taken to hospital on 6 October.

Like many other Canadians, G. never wanted to serve in the army. He was eligible to join up after the summer of 1915, but his income was needed at home. After his father died, he began working as a labourer in Peterborough, supporting the family as best he could. But the Canadian war effort required soldiers. In the autumn of 1917, Victor was forced to register for service under the new Military Service Act. At first he was granted an exemption because he was his mother’s sole source of support. But in April 1918, Ottawa canceled all exemptions for men between the ages of twenty and twenty-two, and on 6 May he was called up for service. When he departed Peterborough for Barriefield Camp, his mother was left alone. At 5’7”, Victor was of average height but strong, well built, and healthy. Certified as front line material by army medical men, the twenty-year-old soldier was destined for the trenches of France. He was just about to go overseas when he took sick in Halifax.

His illness started with a simple cough. ‘The patient has had a cold for some time,’ recorded his doctor on the 6th. ‘Yesterday he was seized with a sever headache and pains all over his body; his eyes were sore; he was slightly dizzy at times. His present temperature is 102.5°. Patient is sweaty and slightly drowsy.’ Until the 9th, his condition remained stable, although he was constantly febrile. By the 10th there were signs of pneumonia in the lungs. Victor’s breathing also became more rapid, rising from about twenty-two breaths per minute to thirty. His pulse quickened as his temperature climbed over 103°.

Doctors could do little for him except ask the nursing staff to keep him comfortable and well fed and to monitor the disease’s progress. There were no drugs, no injections, and no magic bullets. Nurses tried to lower his temperature by applying cold cloths and sponges, but there not enough to go around and his condition worsened.

On the 11th, pneumonia was confirmed when his temperature climbed to 104°. As his breathing grew more laboured, exceeding forty breaths per minute, Victor lost control of his bowel and bladder functions. The next day his temperature was still above 104° and his breathing was steady around thirty-five breaths per minute. That night he began to cough up bloody, frothy pus. Filled with fluid, his lungs were no longer absorbing enough oxygen, and he became cyanotic. Doctors noted that his condition was ‘grave’.

But then came signs of improvement. During the night of the 12th, Victor’s temperature dipped below 102° for the first time in nearly a week. For a brief moment it looked like he might recover. The next day, his temperature rose again and his breathing grew more laboured and rapid, climbing to about fifty shallow breaths per minute. Victor was now struggling to breathe. Each rapid, wheezing inhalation drew air into the congested, soggy mass of pus and blood that used to be a pair of healthy lungs. On the morning of 14 October, at about 7:30, his breathing grew shallower still. A nurse recorded that he was taking in excess of sixty breaths a minute. Gurgling with fluid, his lungs could not absorb enough oxygen to keep him alive. At 8:00, Victor G., a conscript, died of the Spanish influenza far from his home and family and less than a month before the war ended. His body was shipped home to his mother in Peterborough, who buried him beside her husband. It was difficult for her and thousands of other families to find meaning in the deaths of unwilling soldiers whose lives seemingly ended in vain.