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A look at Kamloops during the Spanish Flu of 1918

As society remains upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, KTW digs into the past to see how the pandemic of 1918 to 1920 — which led to the deaths of tens of millions worldwide and about 55,000 in Canada — impacted Kamloops in the final months of the First World War

In the last days of October 1918, Kamloops was dealing with something it had never before seen.

After ravaging Europe and then spreading across North America, the Spanish Flu had arrived.

B.C.’s provincial health office had recently imposed regulations limiting public gatherings. No churches, no shows, no school — no big assemblies of any type.

The experts knew something big was coming.

On Nov. 1, 1918, the Kamloops Standard-Sentinel had a grim front page: “Influenza Conditions in Kamloops Worsen; City May Be Closed To Those Coming From Infected Communities.”

The city’s medical officer, Dr. M. G. Archibald, told council there was little other choice.

“Dr. Archibald stated that the influenza conditions in the city were no better, in fact, not as good as they had been, and were getting worse all the time,” the front-page story read.

“The conditions outside of town were a menace to this city. He declared that, with the city health board wanting to bring about any improvement in conditions, it would be necessary to close up the town tighter.”

Logging camps in the North Thompson were said to be a cesspool for Spanish Flu — dirty clothes, unsanitary food and general filth.

Spanish Flu

Early November of 1918 was also the last days of the First World War, which dominated the newspaper even as a deadly illness began to take hold at home.

“Allies sweep through Serbia like ‘flu’ through Canada,” one headline read.

Because of the flu, Kamloops closed its city limits.

So did Merritt, Victoria, New Westminster, Penticton and dozens of other B.C. municipalities.

On Nov. 4, 1918, the City of Kamloops and the local hospital board took another drastic step. Medical officials took over a downtown hotel, The Patricia, and a military barracks, turning both into field hospitals.

Patients filled all local facilities, but medical professionals were in short supply.

“The lack of nurses is now the great trouble and, unless there are a number of volunteers at once, the board will be in a sad predicament as it is impossible to secure nurses outside of the city as the demand for them is greater than the supply, all over the province,” the Nov. 5, 1918, edition of the Standard-Sentinel read.

“Dr. Archibald, city medical health officer, stated to a representative of the Standard-Sentinel at one o’clock this afternoon that the influenza epidemic in this city was worse today and that, in his judgment, the contagion had not yet reached its zenith.”

According to the newspaper, most homes in Kamloops had at least one case of Spanish Flu and, in some cases, entire families were laid up.

There was talk of closing government offices just so civil servants could lend a hand at Royal Inland Hospital.

“The doctor urges all those who can possibly do so to volunteer to assist as something must be done before the condition becomes too critical,” the Standard-Sentinel read.

On Nov. 8, 1918, a statement from Kamloops Mayor H. M. Miller was displayed prominently beneath the flag on the front page of the Standard-Sentinel — seemingly an effort to dispel panic.

“Owing to the outbreak of influenza there is a tendency among the citizens to become nervous and excited and thereby become less efficient in taking care of those who are afflicted with the disease,” it read, noting that “medical men” were doing everything in their power to handle the influx of illness.

“The greatest handicap they have to overcome is the lack of trained nurses, and an endeavour is being made to secure additional assistance along this line. We would appeal to the public to give the Hospital Board and Nursing Staff every assistance in their power as this is the way you can most effectually do your bit in this emergency.”

The Nov. 12, 1918, front page of the Standard-Sentinel featured a show-stopping headline from Europe — “Armistice Signed; The War Is Over.”

Right next to that story was a touching obituary for a young city businessman and civic leader who fell victim to Spanish Flu.

“The death of W. T. Summers at the Royal Inland Hospital last Friday evening at nine o’clock, of pneumonia, superinduced by influenza, was a woeful shock to the entire community,” the story read, detailing the life and death of the president of the local Chamber of Commerce, also a popular community booster.

“Hardly a week before he had gone home with a slight cold. … Every care was given the patient and all that medical aid could do to break the disease, he grew weaker, struggling but gradually failing, until death came to relieve him. The news spread over the city early the next morning and in every home where he was known there was grief and mourning.”

Spanish Flu

Things changed days later.

On Nov. 15, 1918, health officials declared the worst of the epidemic was over.

They were a little bit optimistic. On Nov. 29, about 330 people in Kamloops remained afflicted. Significant sickness would persist into December.

“Never before in the history of Kamloops have the people passed through such trial and tribulations, suffering and sorrow,” the front page of the Standard-Sentinel read.

“But the trouble has brought out the very best qualities of the Kamloops people and the spirit of sacrifice and sympathy has been demonstrated to the fullest extent.”

The story also thanked those who stepped up to help the community fight Spanish Flu — some of whom died while doing so.

“A few of these volunteers have paid for their bravery and self-sacrifice with their lives, while many others contracted the disease and some are very ill at the present time,” the newspaper read.

Between Dec. 1 and Dec. 6, two new cases were reported daily in Kamloops — a steep decline from November numbers.

According to Andrew Yarmie’s book Women Caring for Kamloops, the field hospitals closed in early December. The virus returned in 1919 and 1920, but neither bout would be as severe as 1918.

On Dec. 13, the provincial government lifted its ban on large assemblies.

But the illness carried on elsewhere. Next to the story in the Dec. 13, 1918, Kamloops Standard-Sentinel about assembly restrictions being lifted was an item stating Seattle had recorded 420 new Spanish Flu cases the previous day.