A century after Spanish Flu, Queen's grapples with a new pandemic

The Journal’s coverage of two pandemics a century apart shows similarities, important differences

The intersection of University Ave. and Union St. sits empty on March 27.

On March 16, when Principal Patrick Deane ordered undergraduate classes suspended, it was the first time in more than 100 years Queen’s ceased academic operations because of a public health crisis, and only the second time in the University’s history.

Today’s pandemic of COVID-19, caused by the new coronavirus, has halted most University operations, cleared Kingston’s streets of pedestrians, and caused an early exodus of students from campus.

The last time a disease outbreak caused so much disruption on campus was during the pandemic of Spanish Influenza in 1918, almost 102 years ago, which killed at least 50 million people around the world.

At the time, Queen’s closed its doors to students for more than two weeks in October of the fall semester of 1918 when the flu pandemic was at its height in the region. When the dust settled, Kingston recorded the most deaths per capita from the illness than any other city in the country.

In the pages of this newspaper, descriptions of campus life grinding to a halt, students heading home to be with family, growing concern about academics, and sporting events being cancelled, mirror 1918’s reporting on the crisis.

Tracking The Journal’s coverage of the Spanish Flu pandemic at Queen’s reveals marked similarities between the community’s response to the crisis then and now—and some important differences.

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The Spanish Flu didn’t reach Kingston in earnest until the fall of 1918. When it did arrive, it hit hard. The City, which at the time was a significant military hub, was overwhelmed.

“The ‘Flu,’ as it is commonly known, has spread to such an extent in Kingston, that the medical authorities of the city found it necessary to close the University on Wednesday,” an Oct. 18, 1918 report in The Journal read.

“As a result the College is deserted at present, many of those students who live within easy reach of the city having gone home until they learn that the disease has abated and it will be possible for them to resume their studies,” it continued.

Not only were classes suspended for a two-week period, exams at Christmas wound up cancelled, too.

“The reaction [from the community] was somewhat similar to what we’re going through now,” Duncan McDowall, professor emeritus of history at Queen’s, said in a phone interview with The Journal.

“They understood that close proximity to people was not good. So the theatres were closed, churches didn’t have services. There was this kind of social distancing—they never used that term—and it was mandated by the state.”

Also similar to today, the pandemic caused marked anxiety among students about the spreading disease’s impacts on the academic session.

“Not a few [students], as they take up again the threads of University life, find themselves asking such questions as:—Will the pace for the remainder of the session be made more strenuous because of the compulsory closing of the University?” a Nov. 5, 1918 editorial in The Journal asked.

“Are the Christmas holidays likely to be interfered with—curtailed? Will the “April nightmares” be postponed two weeks later? As we have not been consulted in the matter, we regret our inability to give the necessary information to those who are perplexed.”

“Our advice, however, would be—Get busy and keep busy.”

Now, similar anxieties can be seen expressed in this newspaper, and by students online. The Journal published an editorial earlier this month urging that students be kept in the loop about academics and University operations so they can try to remain calm.

“Keeping students apprised of what they can do to reduce COVID-19’s spread, what symptoms to look for, and what steps they should take if they suspect they may be infected is extremely important,” the editorial read.

Student leaders also raised concerns earlier this month about the School of Graduate Studies’ preparation after Principal Patrick Deane announced on March 13 undergraduate courses would be suspended from March 16 to 23, while graduate courses continued—though they were suspended three days later.

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The most significant difference between the 1918 flu pandemic and today’s coronavirus outbreak is Queen’s—and the country’s— preparedness for it. A century ago, Canada didn’t have a universal health care system to combat illnesses, or the scientific know-how to diagnose cases.

“What is strikingly different from what we’re in now, is of course, they really didn’t know what was causing [Spanish Flu],” McDowall said. “It was unlike confronting COVID-19, where we know exactly what it is, we have pictures of it.”

The 1918 pandemic also took place at the tail end of the First World War, compounding the human and economic impact of the influenza. McDowall called it a “crisis within a crisis” for Canadians.

However, even coverage in The Journal couldn’t uniformly track the impacts of the pandemic on Kingston because many deaths in the community were attributed to pneumonia and other illnesses caused by the influenza, rather than Spanish Flu directly.

The lack of modern information and treatment about the disease resulted in a significant death toll in Kingston. Dr. John McCullough, Ontario’s provincial health officer at the time, gathered data about Spanish Flu deaths in the province. Though Montréal and Toronto had the greatest numbers of deaths, 3,128 and 1,600 respectively, Kingston had Canada’s highest death rate, registering at 644 deaths per 100,000 people.

The pandemic also hit home for student services, like the AMS, The Journal, and the Levana Society, who all saw members pass away from the illness.

The pandemic claimed the life of Rosswell McTavish, a Queen’s alumni at the time who served in the First World War. Unusually, just five years prior, McTavish had served as both the AMS vice-president and Journal editor in chief.

When news of McTavish’s death reached Kingston on Saturday, Feb. 8, 1919, and the front page of The Journal on the Tuesday that followed, the global pandemic of Spanish Flu had been raging through Kingston for months.

He died of pneumonia after becoming ill with the Spanish Flu during military service in France.

Alumni notices, like the one about McTavish’s death, frequently dotted The Journal’s pages from September to April, spanning the whole 1918-19 academic session.

Another alumni claimed by the influenza was prominent Queen’s athlete J.J. “Jock” Harty, M.D. 1897, who succumbed to the illness while in England. The Journal reported Harty’s death on the front page under the headline “Succumbs to Pneumonia—One of the University’s Best Athletes”

To honour their friend, Harty’s former classmates collected enough money from the community to build the Jock Harty arena, opened in 1922.

Collective community actions and fundraisers have taken place on campus in the wake of COVID-19, as well. On Jan. 28, The Journal reported Queen’s students from Wuhan, the epicentre of the crisis in China, were gathering medical supplies to send back home.

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Today’s pandemic has been a shock to campus. But we’ve been here before, and we’ll more than likely be here again.

When the Spanish Flu abated in Kingston and across the country, and Queen’s resumed classes, a Journal editorial cautiously celebrated the community’s return to campus.

“The toll in human life, especially among the young manhood and womanhood of our country, has been heavy, and it is difficult to say what the outcome would have been had the medical authorities acted otherwise than they did.”

“Glad we are indeed to see the University gates swing open to admit the student once again to the classroom.”

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