A story about the 1918 Influenza in Newfoundland by Robert A. Cotton
This story is inspired by actual events recorded in the 1918 -1919 diaries of my grandfather, Reverend Robert S. Smith. These diaries cover his time stationed in Green’s Harbour, Newfoundland.
A lone man stepped off the porch and made his way across the snow to the small stable at the back of the house. It was cold, his breath clearly visible in the weak light of an early January morning in 1919. His task was as necessary as it was simple: tend to the animals and clean the stable. He usually enjoyed this quiet time with the animals but today all he could think about were the people in Whiteway. Robert was a minister stationed at Green’s Harbour on the east shore of Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. Whiteway was one of several outports on his circuit and many of the one hundred or so people who lived there were infected with influenza. Today he had to attempt to quarantine the community. The influenza virus had arrived in Newfoundland in the spring of 1918. Many had died in that first wave but many more had recovered after several days of experiencing typical flu symptoms such as chills, fever and fatigue.
During his thirteen years in Newfoundland Robert had been helping people survive the many diseases that plagued the island’s outports. As an educated clergyman he felt it was his duty to help those who had no readily available physician. That meant his obligations extended to most of those living within his circuit which included the outports of Green’s Harbour, Cavendish, Whiteway and New Harbour. When he had offered to help Dr. Chisholm, the regional doctor, all he had known about influenza was that there was no proven vaccine for it and no medicines to treat secondary infections such as pneumonia. With Dr. Chisholm’s help he had learned to prepare and dispense certain medicines. Salicin and aspirin when they could be found, helped with the pain, discomfort and fever. Cinnamon mixed in oil or in powder form with milk, helped reduce temperature. And, again with the help of Dr. Chisholm, Robert had learned how to prepare a saturated solution of quinine hydrochloride. It was thought this drug might work against the virus when administered intravenously. He wasn’t convinced of that when he looked to his own recent experiences. The cases of influenza had dropped off in the middle of the summer of 1918 and everyone including Robert and Dr. Chisholm thought they had seen the worst of it. But they had been wrong, the influenza returned in the fall. This second wave, its character changed, brought on higher fevers and a rapid progression from uncomplicated influenza to fatal pneumonia, with many victims dying within hours or days. All of this frustrated the doctors and Robert because they could only treat the symptoms. As he returned to the house to say goodbye to his wife Dora and pick up his medical kit, Robert thought of the deaths he had witnessed in the past year. It seemed to him that today, in January of 1919, he had been fighting this disease forever and making no progress. He feared today’s visit to Whiteway would be no different. He had lost count of how often he had traipsed along this snow path to Whiteway in the past months. The three-mile hike from his home took him an hour or less depending on the weather and condition of the trail. Today it was in good shape, the icy crust had hardened up from yesterday’s rain making the snow firm beneath his boots. Still, Robert was glad he wasn’t walking on to Eastern Corner or Cavendish. It was a cold morning. As always, he hated leaving Dora and their three young children. Robert was away from home often, preaching to and visiting with the people in his circuit. Dora supported his work in many important ways. She understood the demands upon his time and was accustomed to his absence, but she was now seven months pregnant. With this influenza epidemic, many Green’s Harbour folk and others would be visiting to pick up the medicines Robert had prepared for them the night before and of course this exposure made her, the baby, and the children vulnerable to infection.
Having to leave his family worried Robert but tending to the needs of his Methodist brothers and sisters during this influenza epidemic was his duty as a missionary. That’s why he had come to Newfoundland. Robert remembered the ocean voyage from his home in Lavenham, England to St. John’s in the summer of 1906. He remembered his eventual arrival, age twenty, in Cottrell’s Cove on Notre Dame Bay where he began his life’s work as a Methodist missionary. He remembered arriving with his new bride Dora at Heart’s Content on Trinity Bay as a fully ordained Methodist minister in 1912. That year their first child Dora was born. And he remembered moving a year later across the Heart's Content barrens to the village of Victoria where their first boy, William was stillborn. Their most recent move, in 1915, was to Green’s Harbour where their two boys, Herbert and Arthur were born. Robert was no stranger to the island’s harsh and hazardous ways but that didn’t make today’s task any easier.
He had visited Whiteway two days ago and had found Miss Sarah Watt, barely twenty years old, to be extremely ill. She was on the daybed, warmed by the stove in the Watt’s kitchen. She had taken ill the day before with a high fever, sneezing, weakness and pain. Robert had given her medicine to alleviate the pain, discomfort and fever, and a quinine hydrochloride injection in the hope it might attack the virus itself. He diagnosed several more cases of the influenza during that day’s visits and on his return to Green’s Harbour he had wired Dr. Chisholm in Whitbourne about the situation. The doctor had responded quickly. “Present impossible go Whiteway. Please instruct quarantine until my arrival” Robert had hoped to return and quarantine Whiteway the following day, but the weather had changed. It was the rainiest, dirtiest, windiest day he had encountered since coming to Green’s Harbour. The snow path had proved to be impassible because it had gone soft with rain. So today he had to attempt to quarantine Whiteway. As he approached the outport he could see, as expected for this time of year, that there was no activity at the wharves, storage sheds and flakes along the shore. Out in the bay the Shag Rocks tried to escape the clutch of the ocean; and inland the buildings clung to the land in a haphazard manner. Robert knew that it was not haphazard at all but organized with great care to make full use of what little ground was suitable for gardens. He paused for a moment to get his watch, a wedding gift from Dora, out of his vest pocket. It was twenty after nine. Time to get on with it. January days were short.
Isolating the outport would not be difficult but isolating households from each other would be a different story. Robert understood that an outport community depended on the fishery and the subsistence activities of growing and storing other foods. It survived on the work of each family member and the help of neighbours. The essential winter work of obtaining, cutting and storing firewood, mending nets, quilting, knitting and repairing woolen clothing required that people work side by side. They relied on each other for survival by giving away surplus or exchanging it for the surplus of another. To remain in their homes isolated from extended family and neighbours would be difficult for the people of Whiteway. No visiting would be allowed and both inside and outside work would have to be done without the help of neighbours or extended family. Newfoundlanders already understood that each loss of a household member or a neighbour lowered their chances of survival. Maybe, Robert thought, just maybe, if it was explained it in that manner, there might be some success. A few people were out attending to chores as Robert walked through the settlement. Elias Cole, who was sawing wood, paused to shout hello and a few women on their way to visit a friend’s home gave him a wave. Robert noticed that all the homes were shut up tight against the extreme cold. He knew this only hastened the transmission of disease but what were people to do.
Realizing his own house was no different his thoughts turned to Sarah as he made his way towards the Watt home. As he removed his boots and hung up his coat in the Watt’s back porch, he braced himself against what he might find in the kitchen. Today only the women were home. Mrs. Watt and her daughter-in-law Jane were sitting at the table using the window light to mend clothing. Two toddlers, children of Jane and the Watt’s oldest son John, were playing with a few toys found in a box by the day bed. John had been killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, his family continuing to live in the Watt home. Mr. Watt and John’s two younger brothers were out, likely collecting firewood. At first glance this might seem normal. But it wasn’t normal at all. Robert was immediately drawn to the figure on the bed, to Sarah, who had burst out bleeding through her nose. He rushed to her side and was quickly joined by Mrs. Watt. Jane fetched some cloth and then put the kettle on for hot water. Between them they managed to staunch Sarah’s nosebleed but now they could see that her lips were beginning to turn blue. Robert recognized the deadly hue of cyanosis, a symptom of pneumonia brought on by the influenza. From his discussions with Dr. Chisholm and his own recent experiences he knew young Sarah likely did not have long to live. He explained this to a distraught Mrs. Watt as he prepared a shot of quinine hydrochloride without much hope. Checking his watch, it was just past eleven o’clock, Robert realised he didn’t have much time. After explaining what must be done to sequester the home, he left Mrs. Watt with Sarah and went on to visit other worried families to outline the conditions for quarantine. His first stop was at the Cole’s house. He explained the situation to Elias and asked him to pass the word about the quarantine and Dr. Chisholm’s impending visit. Robert then visited the families he knew to have signs of infection. At Charlie Croaker’s place he discovered Baby Noah had come down with pneumonia and was terribly ill. Robert treated the poor boy with epinephrine to help with his breathing but to no avail. The baby died an hour later. It was going on two o’clock when he checked in on Sarah only to find that she was in fact dying. Each breath was a struggle now as frothy bloody fluid escaped her tortured lungs. Her face and limbs were turning a bluish purple from lack of oxygen. Robert stayed with the family until she passed before taking his long and lonely walk home. He trudged along for some time not focusing on the path before him. Walking by faith rather than sight, Robert was thinking about the quiet misery he had been witness to today and over the past year. As he prayed for guidance he fell, painfully bruising his knee against the rock that had tripped him up. As he struggled to his feet, Robert knew he would have to accept the pain in his knee if he was to make it home and with this thought the path before him came into clear focus. He understood now that pain and suffering require a response. And in this world, it could only be love and compassion. The sun was setting when Robert arrived home in Green’s Harbour. He limped up the steps of his porch, secure in his faith and comforted by the knowledge his own ordeal would be assuaged by the love and kindness of his own family. Dora and the children greeted him, first with excitement and then concern, as he shuffled across the kitchen floor to his chair by the fire. Dora immediately got him settled with his injured leg elevated on a chair. She brought him a dinner of pork and cabbage she had been keeping warm before going outside to collect some ice for his knee. As Dora applied the ice pack Robert talked to his family about his day. Between bites of his dinner he told them about Miss Sarah Watt’s death, of setting up the quarantine and the story of how he injured his knee. However, not wanting to upset Dora or the children he withheld the news of the Croaker baby death. Robert knew they would hear about it from others soon enough. In the days to come Robert would conduct the funerals of Miss Sarah Watt, Baby Noah Croaker and others as he had been doing for victims of the pandemic since the spring of 1918. There were fewer cases and deaths as the pandemic slowed and the spring approached. This was a great relief to Robert as he and his family prepared for the arrival of their new baby. Jenny K. Smith was born March 11, 1919. Unfortunately she arrived with a hare lip and cleft palate. Robert’s efforts to get help for the girl would take him on another journey that eventually led him to quit Newfoundland the following year.
Robert Cotton is a photographer, writer and amateur historian. He is the curator of Grey Bruce Image Archives (GBIA), a collection historical photographs that represents life in Owen Sound and Grey/Bruce counties. In 2018 he published a book Owen Sound Harbour – A Photographic History, using GBIA photographs to tell the story of the harbour. It is available at Foto Art Camera Shop in Owen Sound, a partner in Grey Bruce Image Archives.