This N.S. historian spent years researching the Spanish flu. Now she's living in a pandemic

·4 min read

When historian Ruth Holmes Whitehead started research in 2017 for a book looking at the Spanish flu outbreak in Nova Scotia a century prior, she had no idea she'd end up living in a pandemic.

"It's awful because you sort of automatically have this [bad] feeling ... how this is going to turn out," said the author of Nova Scotia and the Great Influenza Pandemic, 1918-1920, which was published last November.

An estimated 50-100 million people died from the Spanish flu around the world, while in Nova Scotia, there were an estimated 2,200 deaths.

To date, there have been 65 deaths due to COVID-19 in Nova Scotia and more than 1.8 million globally.

Much like COVID-19 today, the Spanish flu originally found its way into the province through travel and then spread from there. This included troops returning overseas from the First World War, Massachusetts fishermen who landed here to sell fish and gear, and even American military ships headed to Europe who unloaded their sick before they trekked across the Atlantic for the Great War.

Library and Archives Canada / PA-025025
Library and Archives Canada / PA-025025

Spread was also fuelled by gathering in crowds. One such instance was a church service in Goshen, Guysborough County. The word didn't exist then, but it would be called a superspreader event today.

Holmes Whitehead said the Goshen Baptist Church burned down in August 1918 after it was struck by lightning, so parishioners started meeting in a tiny schoolroom in neighbouring Eight Island Lake. A minister from Antigonish, N.S., conducted one of the services in the packed room.

"Before he left, he had infected the whole congregation of about 50 people and he'd also infected everybody in the house that was hosting him ... the death records say only three people died — a young farmer, an older married woman and a baby — but that doesn't tell us anything about the number of people in that general area that got sick from this one person and this one crowded situation," said Holmes Whitehead, who has worked for the Nova Scotia Museum for almost 50 years.

Her research on the Spanish flu was used for an online museum exhibit to mark the pandemic's 100th anniversary, but there was so much additional information she had gathered that a book was a better fit for all of it.

Some of the symptoms of Spanish flu could be particularly gruesome.

"It presents with a high fever and a feeling of terrible pain in all your joints and what was described as having a wedge hammered into your head, right behind your eyes, and people began bleeding from their noses, ears and eyes," said Holmes Whitehead.

NAID 86697765/National Archives and Records Administration
NAID 86697765/National Archives and Records Administration

"They were basically just out of their minds with pain and the lungs filled up and they drowned in their own bodily fluids and their bodies were so reduced in oxygen that often their hands and feet would turn blue," she said.

"And some people turned blue all over, a really dark blue, just because all the blood in their body was empty of oxygen."

Both the Spanish flu and COVID-19 are H1N1 strains and, in the century that separates the two, little has changed in terms of how society responds to them, such as wearing masks to help prevent transmission.

Getty Images
Getty Images

"Our tools are not that much different," said Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health.

"We close things down. We restrict public activities. We tell people to stay home. We may have lots more fancy, modern medical tools, but at the end of the day when it comes to something like a pandemic, it's basic core public health, which hasn't changed for 100 years and probably won't change for the next 100 years, which is somewhat humbling."

Holmes Whitehead said that besides being able to test for COVID-19, one other difference today is there are so many platforms to communicate to people about what's happening and what they should do.

"And if you keep drilling it into their heads, maybe some of it will sink in," she said.

Getty Images
Getty Images

In the midst of the second wave, Holmes Whitehead continues to hunker down at her Halifax apartment to ride out the coronavirus pandemic — and she has a message for people.

"Stay inside and wear your mask and wash your hands and don't be stupid," said Holmes Whitehead. "You know, this is not a picnic, it's not like the flu, it's really horrible. It can have lasting physiological, neurological effects that you really don't want to go there.

"Please stay safe."


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