Spanish Flu Epidemic 1918

If a good thing can be said to have resulted from the Influenza epidemic of 1918-1920, it was the creation of a regional Board of Health, representing the seven municipalities situated along the Detroit River, i.e. Sandwich East, Ford City, Walkerville, Windsor, Sandwich Town, Ojibway and Sandwich West.

In 1918 the newspapers were full of reports of the Great War and the young men dying overseas. Then articles began appearing documenting a growing body count at home.  Starting in the autumn of that year Windsor and Essex County, along with many communities worldwide, were devastated by the loss of life due to a virulent strain of influenza which often resulted in secondary complications such as pneumonia.  They called it the “Spanish Flu”, as Spain was the first European country to experience the pandemic;  soldiers returning from deployment in Europe brought the contagion to North America.  Local Acting Medical Officer of Health, Dr. G.F. Cruickshanks, exhorted citizens to practice good hygiene: not to spit, use handkerchiefs, perform hand washing, and sleep and work in cool fresh air.

People who became ill were advised to see their doctors immediately and then stay home until symptom free. School-aged children formed long lines to receive vaccinations, but for many the injections had no effect. Purveyors of patent medicines, such as “D. Williams Spanish FluPink Pills” touted other nostrums to the sick. Beds in Hotel Dieu filled with influenza patients. By mid October, the BORDER CITIES STAR reported over 85 cases of the Spanish flu.  Although the homes of the sick were not quarantined, Mayor Charles R. Tuson felt compelled to issue a ban on public gatherings, including closing of schools, churches, theatres and dance halls. Later, bowing to public pressure from certain groups, Tuson lifted the ban on October 31. In the next day’s news, the Board of Health announced 71 new cases.

Windsor’s death rate in October 1918 doubled from the previous year, all attributed to the epidemic. In October and November alone, at least 126 local residents officially perished as a result of influenza, although the actual number likely was larger as many died in their homes, without seeking diagnosis or medical attention. As in most of Ontario, nearly 70% of all victims were between 18 to 43 years of age. In December, the Great War Veteran’s home was converted into an emergency care facility. The Salvation Army opened its own hospital. New cases and more deaths continued to emerge in successive waves through the next two years, finally subsiding in 1920.

In his 1918 report to the Provincial Board of Health of Ontario, Dr. Cruickshanks advocated for the creation of a district board of health to co-ordinate action to regional concerns. Representation by other leading citizens, the Essex Border Utilities Commission and a joint body comprised of representatives from the seven municipalities located along the Detroit River finally convinced the provincial legislature to merge the separate local boards into one organization, under one head, to administer to the Essex border district. The new Board of health came into effect July 1, 1919.  The first medical officer of Health was Dr. Fred Adams, who assumed his duties starting September, 1919.




Thirty-eighth Annual Report of the Provincial Board of Health of Ontario, Canada for the year 1919. [available online]

Various articles from the BORDER CITIES STAR. (October 8, 1918 to September 1, 1920)