Fighting the Flu

How the average Canadian fought the flu

Ellen Scheinberg

The Spanish flu that afflicted thousands of Canadians from 1918 to 1920 was extremely virulent and unlike any other previous strain. The public was caught off-guard and turned to public health officials and physicians for help. This was prior to medicare, when many Canadians couldn’t afford to seek help from a doctor. Those living in isolated areas were often unable to access a physician because there were none in their communities.

At this time, medicine was somewhat primitive, and, as a result, some Canadians viewed physicians with suspicion. Consequently, many people fended for themselves when tackling disease. While there was an attempt to produce a special vaccine to protect people against the flu, it proved to be ineffective. Antibiotics had yet to be invented. As a result, doctors had limited treatment tools. “Faced with wheezing, blue-faced patients,” American historian Laura Spinney states, doctors felt compelled to do something and “threw the medicine cabinet at the problem.”

This ad for Vapo-Cresolene promoted this cure-all product that supposedly remedied a variety of ailments, including the grip orflu. It was manufactured in Montreal and New York and contained creosote, a derivative of coal tar. The black liquid was heated and the vapour that was produced was inhaled by the user. An archeologist blogger noted that the bottle contained a symbol which at the time was used to identify poisonous substances.

Some of the methods that contemporary physicians relied on included: blood letting, saline injections and enemas. Small doses of poisonous substances, like arsenic, mercury and strychnine, were often recommended and viewed as beneficial for those suffering from the flu.  Other physicians relied on potent and addictive drugs like heroin, cocaine, and morphine to treat their patients. They also recommended regular doses of alcohol to protect their patients from the flu, along with copious amount of aspirin to quell pain and fever. Tragically, some patients died from aspirin poisoning.

Many patented medicines appeared on the market and were sold in drugstores.  These remedies, advertised in local newspapers and magazines, were expensive and unregulated. Some contained narcotics, toxic substances and alcohol. One didn’t require a prescription to purchase these over-the-counter patent medicines. However, during the prohibition years, medical prescriptions were required to purchase alcohol. These bottled cure-alls ran the gamut from harmless natural remedies to toxic medicines containing ingredients like coal and pine tar. Today, it’s difficult to comprehend what could have incited Canadians to consume these products beyond sheer desperation.

One of the most effective methods at the disposal of public health officials and doctors was the promotion of preventative measures. These included: avoiding public gatherings, covering one’s mouth when coughing and sneezing, remaining in rooms with proper ventilation and wearing a mask. At the height of the epidemic, some communities closed schools, theatres, churches and other public spaces to isolate the contagion and prevent it from spreading any further. 

Poster issued by the Provincial Board of Public Health, Alberta, 1918. LAC PA-2472-215.

Beyond such common-sense preventions, many Canadians relied on home remedies, often in the form of recipes and treatments passed down from generation to generation. It was typically the matriarch of the family who took care of her kin and assumed the dual but interconnected role of caregiver and healer. These remedies often involved eucalyptus oil, herbal teas, home-made poultices and goose grease. The poultices were produced by mashing up a mixture of heated household products such as mustard, onions and lard, which were then wrapped in a cloth and applied to the patient’s neck or chest to relieve pain and congestion. A popular spicy tea used to fight some of flu symptoms consisted of hot peppers, warm milk, soda and sugar. This concoction supposedly relieved headaches and promoted digestion.

Example of the type of mustard tin that would be purchased to create poultices, also called plasters, at this time.

Immigrant families and Indigenous Canadians were particularly committed to traditional remedies and practices. The Chinese relied on a remedy called “yin qiao san,” a fragrant mixture of powdered honeysuckle and forsythia. The Jewish community, in turn, drew on old country recipes like chicken soup – viewed as Jewish penicillin — and “guggle-muggle,” a mixture of hot milk, alcohol, egg yolk and sugar. Indigenous families relied almost exclusively on traditional remedies, which included teas steeped with local plants like hemlock, along with therapeutic treatments like massage, charcoal poultices and sweat lodges.

Hot water treatments and saunas, in turn, originated in ancient Greece and Rome and were lauded at this time for their curative properties. Over time, other cultures began to employ heat treatments for relaxation and therapeutic purposes, and they spread to regions such as Turkey, Asia, Northern and Eastern Europe, and North America. Another ancient remedy embraced by many cultures around the world was cupping. This treatment involved placing heated cups on the skin, thereby creating a vacuum meant to loosen congestion, encourage circulation and healing, and according to some, remove the evil spirits from the body responsible for the patient’s malady and pain.

Over the second half of the twentieth century, many of these traditional concoctions and treatments had been gradually abandoned by Canadians and replaced with modern medicine. This includes annual vaccines to prevent the flu, the Tamiflu vaccine used to treat influenza, as well as over-the-counter products like cough syrup, pain relievers, and cold tablets to alleviate some of the symptoms. Most Canadians fully exploit these scientific options, while supplementing them with home remedies like chicken soup, medicinal teas, and heat treatments, that often provide the patient with a sense of comfort and a strong connection to the past — primarily their beloved mothers and revered ancestors.

Photo of Michael Phelps competing at the Rio Olympic games in 2016. The circular marks on his body were produced during his cupping therapy session. He told the press that it was painful but beneficial, since in his view, it improved circulation, boosted his energy level, and contributed to his overall well-being.