Pandemic at Home

By Ashley Henrickson

In the fall of 1918, a group of worried neighbours entered the Rombough family home near Taber, to find Mr. Rombough lying dead in his bed. His wife and four children were beside him, all seriously ill with influenza. Tragic scenes like this played out in homes around the world, as between 40 and 100 million people were killed by the 1918–1919 flu pandemic, including 4,000 Albertans.

The influenza virus landed in Toronto in the first or second week of September 1918. By October 10, the virus had travelled to southern Alberta. Albertans fight a seasonal flu each year, but in 1918 the flu was especially deadly. The 1918 strain, commonly referred to as the Spanish flu, was unique because it disproportionally killed young, healthy adults (aged 15–45). Scientists are still unsure why. This specific flu attacked its victims quickly. First, they suffered from symptoms we commonly associate with the flu, including nausea, fever, aches and diarrhea. Unlucky patients then developed dark spots on their cheeks and a bluish tint in their faces, as they contracted pneumonia—a disease that caused their lungs to fill with fluid, often leading to death by suffocation.

On October 17, Fort Macleod, Pincher Creek, Taber and Lethbridge were quarantined, meaning that no one could leave or enter these areas. The quarantines caused immense chaos as people visiting the city for the day were unable to return home. In Lethbridge, the quarantine was lifted after just 48 hours, but the city continually closed and reopened churches, theaters and schools as the flu grew and shrank. Public gatherings, in general, were banned during especially deadly weeks and the province ordered all Albertans to wear masks whenever they left their homes during October and November 1918. Many citizens openly defied official health regulations, refusing to wear masks or respect quarantine laws. However, the federal and provincial governments continued to play a large role in fighting the disease.

You can learn more about the deadly influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 in the Pandemic at Home exhibit at the Galt Museum & Archives until October 14, 2018.