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Burn Their Names in Bronze

Physicians and health professionals fighting an epidemic

Mathieu Arsenault

Any teacher can still remind his or her students about the incomparable blanket of dedication that enveloped our influenza victims in October 1918.

Dr. J. Gauvreau, La Leçon de nos morts.[1]

Source: La Patrie, October 5, 1918.

At the beginning of October 1918, just when the news from the war was becoming more encouraging, the press in Quebec started warning its readers about the spread of the influenza epidemic. After the disease swept through Europe some weeks before, its symptoms began to appear in several parts of the province.

Although there was reason to see the situation as very alarming if nothing was done to contain it,[2] the director of the Quebec Health Council wanted to reassure people. Relying heavily on individual Quebecers to act responsibly and take the usual precautions to limit the flu’s spread, Elzéar Pelletier stated that if everyone who was sick or had been in contact with someone who was sick took care of their nasal and oral secretions, instead of scattering them everywhere, the disease would not be able to circulate to the extent that it had so often in the past.[3]

Source: La Patrie, October 15, 1918.

Seeing a good business opportunity, some store owners ran advertisements for all kinds of syrups and remedies that promised to prevent the flu – or even cure it – in newspapers across the country. Endorsed in many cases by “doctors” with questionable credentials who were brought in for promotional purposes, these “marvels” attracted the attention and took the money of Canadians looking for ways of protecting themselves from an epidemic that looked as if it was not going to spare anyone. According to the American manufacturer of the Élixir de Vin Amer de Triner, these kinds of remedies, whose great effectiveness was supposedly demonstrated during the flu epidemic, were so popular that there were shortages.[4] In contrast to the image projected by those “healers” and other snake oil salesmen who took advantage of the epidemic to boost their profits, health specialists of another kind were hard at work fighting the ravages of the disease in the field. In every city and town across the country, the press made a point of saluting physicians for their dedication in combating the epidemic.

Source: Le Progés du Golfe, October 4, 1918.

The September 30 death of Dr. Hippolyte Sirois, who practised in the village of Trois-Pistoles in Lower St. Lawrence, revealed the profound sympathy people felt for the medical professionals who devoted themselves to treating the victims of that “pernicious and deadly” disease known as the Spanish flu. A few days after the 34-year-old physician fell victim to the effects of the disease, Progrès du Golfe published a front-page article to correct the impression left by the brief initial report of his death. Rather than an everyday fatality or inconsequential event, the newspaper noted:

[translation] the heroic death and admirable, edifying selflessness of this obscure martyr of professional dedication, himself succumbing to the embrace of the Grim Reaper, who, to facilitate his work of snuffing out human lives, insidiously attacked the life of this man of healing, an indefatigable adversary who robbed him of so many coveted victims, striking him down in his turn and laying him brutally in the icy tomb where he now rests for eternity.[5]

Aside from the lyricism typical of the style in vogue at the time, this passage reflects a desire by the reporter to extol the dedication of health professionals in that period of uncertainty caused by an unstoppable epidemic. In addition to saluting the sense of duty that kept the doctor from fleeing the dangers of contagion, the reporter portrays physicians as models of dedication, comparing them to the martyred saints of the past and the heroes of the battlefield: [translation] “In the lives of these heroes and martyrs, who humbly dedicate themselves and sacrifice themselves for others, there are useful and valuable lessons of selflessness and abnegation that we would do well to remember from time to time.”[6]

During October in particular, the steady stream of news reports about the deaths of physicians across the province accentuated this outpouring of admiration for health professionals. In mid-October, the death of Dr. Conrad Ringet, a 34-year-old physician practising in Rimouski, prompted the local press to repeat its paean for the doctors who, across the province, [translation] “have already lost their lives in the obscure and gruelling fight they had heroically waged against the overwhelming scourge that is raging and wreaking havoc across our country.” In a context marked by the Great War, which had wracked Europe for four years, it is hardly surprising that the physicians fighting a new viral enemy should be likened to soldiers: [translation] “More than anyone else, the physician is gravely exposed to the risk of succumbing in the fray; he is a front-line soldier whom a single tiny but deadly germ insidiously infiltrating his body can strike down as fatally as a lethal bullet or shell fired at random by the enemy’s engines of war.” Lamenting the passing of these “heroically courageous” doctors, the press pointed out that these men were in the “prime of life” and had a promising future ahead of them.[7] Far from being isolated cases, Dr. Sirois and Dr. Ringet were just two names on a long list of deceased physicians. The situation was so serious that in late October, a tally was needed: [translation] “The spectacle was awful. In one month, one after another, 27 fell by the wayside! Probably love of the work, or a sense of duty, made them reckless in their vigilance.”[8] The tragic fate of the physicians who died fighting the epidemic even inspired men of letters to write about a fierce battle, often waged with unequal weapons:

Our doctors tried to circumvent it

And free the city from it too,

But who from growing could prevent it?

For don’t we know it’s the Spanish flu?[9]

Expressing regret at having to prepare [translation] “this disheartening martyrology” so that the “altruism which drives physicians to treat victims of fever, smallpox or plague with equal care”[10] would be fully recognized by the public, Dr. Joseph Gauvreau suggested that after the epidemic was over, a complete list should be made of “these heroes of duty performed humbly, with Christian charity and with humanity.” The aim was to honour their sacrifice by placing, [translation] “in a prominent public location, such as the walls of the legislature in Québec City, a plaque commemorating the dedication of the physicians who gave their lives for their ailing brethren in the last few weeks,” remembering to “include the names of the nurses who also died in the performance of their duty”.[11] This proposal to erect a memorial to the physicians and nurses who “fell on the field of honour” reflects how grateful people were for the sacrifice of an entire “army” of health professionals who fought the epidemic in the cities and towns, temporary hospitals and rural areas of Quebec. In addition to the doctors and nurses, we should mention the nuns, home care attendants and volunteers who on many occasions exhibited the same courage in dealing with the disease afflicting their families and their communities.

The fact that such a memorial was never made is probably due to the fact that after the epidemic was eradicated, the end of the First World War and the efforts to erect monuments to the soldiers who died and suffered in the mud and the trenches overseas somewhat overshadowed the domestic battle against the flu. As a result, despite the outpouring of admiration at the time of the epidemic, Dr. Gauvreau could only lament, more than 15 years later, that [translation] “we have not yet found a way to engrave in bronze the names of the 37 physicians who perished because of their dedication during the great Spanish flu epidemic of 1918”.[12] Today, it is up to us to revive the memory of those 37 doctors and all the others whose sacrifice remains unknown. The names and stories of hundreds of women – nurses, nuns and home care attendants – who showed the same dedication, who made the same sacrifice to comfort their communities in those uncertain times, are also waiting to be engraved in bronze.

In the space of just one month, October 1918, the newspapers reported the names of 25 physicians who succumbed to the Spanish flu. But what about those who died in November and December 1918, or in 1919? Who are the women – nurses, nuns and home care attendants – who could be added to the list?

Source: Le Progrés du Golfe, November 30, 1918.

ENDNOTES

[1] Joseph Gauvreau, “La leçon de nos morts”, Le Progrès du Golfe, October 30, 1918, p. 6.

[2] Elzéar Pelletier, “Des moyens préventifs”, Le Devoir, October 4, 1918, p. 2

[3] Le Progrès du Golfe, October 4, 1918, p. 1

[4] “De la prévoyance”, La Liberté, Winnipeg, December 4, 1918, p. 6

[5] Le Progrès du Golfe, October 4, 1918, p. 1.

[6] Le Progrès du Golfe, October 4, 1918, p. 1.

[7] Le Progrès du Golfe, October 18, 1918, p. 1.

[8] Joseph Gauvreau, “La leçon de nos morts”, Le Progrès du Golfe, October 30, 1918, p. 6.

[9] Armand Leclaire, “La Grippe Espagnole”, Le Passe-Temps, November 16, 1918, p. 458.

[10] Joseph Gauvreau, “La leçon de nos morts”, Le Progrès du Golfe, October 30, 1918, p. 6.

[11] Georges Pelletier, Le Devoir, quoted in Joseph Gauvreau, “La leçon de nos morts”, Le Progrès du Golfe, October 30, 1918, p. 6.

[12] Joseph Gauvreau, L’œuvre des gouttes de lait paroissiales, no. 198, December 1935, p. 198.

REFERENCES
  1. Joseph Gauvreau, “La leçon de nos morts”, Le Progrès du Golfe, October 30, 1918, p. 6.
  2. Elzéar Pelletier, “Des moyens préventifs”, Le Devoir, October 4, 1918, p. 2.
  3. Le Progrès du Golfe, October 4, 1918, p. 1.
  4. “De la prévoyance”, La Liberté, Winnipeg, December 4, 1918, p. 6.
  5. Le Progrès du Golfe, October 4, 1918, p. 1.
  6. Le Progrès du Golfe, October 4, 1918, p. 1.
  7. Le Progrès du Golfe, October 18, 1918, p. 1.
  8. Joseph Gauvreau, “La leçon de nos morts”, Le Progrès du Golfe, October 30, 1918, p. 6.
  9. Armand Leclaire, “La Grippe Espagnole”, Le Passe-Temps, November 16, 1918, p. 458.
  10. Joseph Gauvreau, “La leçon de nos morts”, Le Progrès du Golfe, October 30, 1918, p. 6.
  11. Georges Pelletier, Le Devoir, quoted in Joseph Gauvreau, “La leçon de nos morts”, Le Progrès du Golfe, October 30, 1918, p. 6.
  12. Joseph Gauvreau, L’œuvre des gouttes de lait paroissiales, no. 198, December 1935, p. 198.