Time Space Equation

A Few Million Germs; Surviving the 1918 Flu

Leonard Lea Frazer

Introduction:  While living in the Robson Valley in the 1970s, I would travel to Vancouver on vacation, perhaps once a year. I enjoyed the change of scenery and, as I was born in Vancouver, I gravitated to my old neighborhoods. The growth and physical changes in the Lower Mainland that had occurred were observed on each visit.

When I stated that I was living in a small village, Valemount, my friends in Vancouver would always say, “Valemount? Is that the place where sawmills burn down all the time?”

Sadly, this was true, and years later that would inspire me to write a newspaper article called, “Burn down the Mill.”

During several of my visits to the coast, I called on my aunt and uncle, who had lived at the same address for many years in North Vancouver. Uncle Jack always had a gift for storytelling and I enjoyed his accounts of World War II and how he had fought in the war, was a Medic and landed on the beaches in France.

However, long years before, when my uncle and father were growing up in Vancouver, around the time of the First World War, their family lived in Burnaby, near Trout Lake. My grandparents raised the two boys and they both went to school in the area.

When my Uncle Jack passed away I was given a copy of a short story that he had written describing his life as a youngster in 1918. As this was the year of the worldwide flu epidemic, sometimes referred to as the “Spanish Flu,” the global sickness was in the background of his tale about growing up in the “Cedar Cottage” area of Vancouver.

Much research by epidemiologists has resulted in years of study and still the origins of the worldwide flu are unsubstantiated. Originally the flu’s breeding grounds were seen as the wartime trenches in France, ridden with filth, disease and death, the theory that was used to explain how the illness spread from Europe to cities in Canada and the U.S. by pointing a finger at returning troopships.

This method of spreading the flu was also similar to the “Black Death” (1347-1351) where Oriental rat fleas, living on black rats, were regular passengers on merchant ships, distributing the medieval “bug” throughout the Mediterranean and Europe. Seventy-five to 200 million people died in Eurasia as a result.

The 1918 flu infected an estimated 500 million. Fifty to 100 million people were killed worldwide. Most of the victims of the virus were healthy young adults. By comparison, the casualties in the First World War were 15 million.

My uncle explains his perspective of the World and how the Spanish Flu epidemic affected his life as a young boy, in the following story.

When I Was a Sickly Six-year Old

– by Jack Fisher    

Leagh and Jack; Brothers. The boys were out for a ride and, no doubt,  looking for germs.
Leagh and Jack; Brothers. The boys were out for a ride and, no doubt, looking for germs.

When I was six, there were only two places in the world - Cedar Cottage and France. The year was 1918 and the main topic of conversation among the adults was France and somebody called Lloyd George. If Cedar Cottage was my home, then the distant mountains must be France and a person as important as Lloyd George must be a motorman on the B.C. Electric Streetcar. I discovered, of course, that the mountains were part of the North Shore, and I later corrected my thinking on Mr. Lloyd George too.

My father, David John Fisher, was a shoemaker and we lived in Cedar Cottage, which is roughly that area where Victoria Drive and Commercial intersect. Our house overlooked Trout Lake which, from a distance, looked quite scenic. We could reach the edge of the lake, however, from only about four points. The surrounding areas were horrible peat bogs, unapproachable, and very dangerous to the inexperienced. The many small pine trees around the lake were really beautiful; in contrast, the smell from the stagnant pools of water, and the prolific growth of skunk cabbage, would discourage the most avid nature lover.

A plank road running east and west near the lake led to a small Italian community. The people there were unaffectionately called "Dagoes.” I do not think the word "Italian" was part of the vocabulary of anyone at Cedar Cottage at that time. The Italian people worked hard, lived in perpetual poverty, and had very few or none of the good things of life. Their houses on the bogs always appeared to be floating away. The sidewalks leading to the houses were slats nailed across 2 x 4's. When we walked on these sidewalks great spurts of water sluiced up at us from between the slats. In the summer, flies and mosquitoes blighted the area, spider-like creatures with long legs swam across the top of the stagnant water, and not a trout could be seen.

Shortly after I had started to Lord Selkirk School, the worldwide influenza epidemic struck, even at Cedar Cottage. The schools were closed for about three months, I think, and part of our school became a hospital. Nearly everyone on our street had the flu and was confined to bed, including my parents and my younger brother Leagh. Being a sickly child I naturally did not catch the flu. I say this because all the rules I was to learn later about good health seemed to work in reverse.

That flu of 1918 was quite different from the flu we know today, and which some people see as hardly more serious than the common cold. That flu of 1918 seems to have hit everyone at Cedar Cottage except me. And because I was not struck down, soon had many chores to do, like running to the stores for groceries, running from house to house to keep fires going, and running to the drug store for medicine which smelled suspiciously like liquor. These were heavy responsibilities for a six-year-old. However, my ego was inflated considerably for I had suddenly become a very important person in that community. Long afterwards, my mother told me that I had carried out these emergency chores very very efficiently. She was quite sure that she had a genius for a son.

Shortly after the epidemic subsided I returned to school and learned some rules for good health. The teacher assigned to teach this Health Hygiene could hardly have been less inspiring. She seemed to have a continual cold and was blowing her nose all day. I noted that she was mindful of having a voluminous supply of handkerchiefs at all times, but all of them were soggy. She told us that diseases were caused by germs, by invisible little creatures that were everywhere. She told us that people carried germs and transmitted them to other people. She told us that these germs rode on the streetcars, and that they even sat on the lead pencils we used in school. She further explained that the way to avoid disease was to stay scrupulously clean, to wash our hands before meals, to sterilize everything, and to be careful of what we put in our mouths. Personally, I preferred to take my chances with the invisible creatures, I preferred to remain dirty. If I had washed as often as my teacher suggested that I wash, I would have had no time for anything else. Besides, and worst of all, I chewed about half a pencil each day, perhaps as a supplement to a meager diet!

After being exposed to more education and to a few million more germs, I concluded that if the concepts propounded by my sickly teacher were true, then my Dago friends who lived in absolute squalor should all have died during the flu epidemic as surely as though it had been the bubonic plague. Strangely enough the Italians were the healthiest people in the community.

On the other hand, those who had been immaculately clean and observed all the rules for good health as suggested by the Health Hygiene teacher usually had a colourful quarantine sign slapped on their houses, a sign which read "Scarlet Fever" or "Diphtheria," or whatever other disease happened to be fashionable at the time. When I drew my profound observations to the attention of my father, he answered my questions about why the Italians did not get sick by merely saying, "Because they eat garlic".  To this day I am not really sure. And somehow I still always feel that quarantine signs do nothing but frighten people to death.

But times change. The plank road has gone, so has the skunk cabbage, so have the peat bogs. The word "Dago" has all but vanished from our vocabulary. I do not know what has happened to the germs; I have never been able to see one anyway.

A street scene at Cedar Cottage, Vancouver, BC.
A street scene at Cedar Cottage, Vancouver, BC.
Jack and Leagh, in Cadet uniforms, with their mom and dad, in 1927.
Jack and Leagh, in Cadet uniforms, with their mom and dad, in 1927.