New gallery exhibit sheds light on flu epidemic that killed 4,000 in Alberta

One hundred years ago, a devastating flu swept into Alberta and killed more than 4,000 people.

The Spanish flu confounded doctors with its lightning-fast progression, and the fact that it most affected adults aged 20 to 45.

A new exhibit at the Borealis Gallery in Edmonton, “In Flew Enza: the Spanish Flu Comes to Alberta,” sheds light on this bleak period of the province’s history, and explores some of the repercussions.

“It was huge and it was one of the first truly global pandemics,” said Barbara Hilden, exhibits co-ordinator at the gallery. “There was the Black Death and there were Russian flus, but they were fairly isolated, because this was the first one that had international travel. It had trains that worked and soldiers moving around.”

In fact, it was rail travel that brought the virus to Alberta.

The Spanish flu arrived in the province at 3 a.m. on Oct. 2, 1918, when a dozen soldiers were evacuated from a cross-country troop train in Calgary, said Hilden. 

It would have arrived inevitably. And Alberta had seen it coming, first in Europe, then in Eastern Canada, and in Toronto and Winnipeg.

Second wave was catastrophic

The disease hit the province in three waves. The first, in the spring of 1918, was relatively mild. But over the summer of 1918 the virus mutated, and the second wave was catastrophic; between September and December that wave killed 90 per cent of the people who died from the Spanish flu.

“One of the really unusual things about the virus is that it often presented with its first symptoms and people were dead within 24 hours,” said Hilden.

Some died from the flu itself, others from complications afterward. 

“The weird thing about this virus is that it was so aggressive that it — we think, anyway — overstimulated people’s immune systems, so their bodies went into hyperactive defence and killed healthy tissues as well as the virus. Especially in lungs.”

The third wave began in the spring of 1919, Hilden said, and was also fairly mild. It coincided with soldiers coming back from the First World War.

The Spanish flu confounded doctors, who several times thought they were close to a cure. But it ultimately took 87 years to sequence the characteristics of the H1N1 gene.

Entire industries shut down

The virus had immediate and long-lasting impacts. There were a great number of orphans, and entire industries were shut down due to a lack of workers. Telephone operators were called away from their work to be nurses and caregivers, interrupting phone service to rural Albertan communities and rendering them isolated.

The exhibit runs until January at the Borealis Gallery in the legislative assembly visitor centre, 9820 107th St.

It’s estimated that the flu killed up to 100 million people worldwide, including 50,000 in Canada.

“It’s a little bit of a mystery as to why we don’t talk more about it,” Hilden said. “My guess as a curator and as a researcher is that it’s not a good news story. It’s not something people really wanted to remember. Whereas when you talk about war deaths, you have valour and patriotism and fraternity.

“There’s some glory in dying for your country; there’s no glory in dying of the flu.”

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