Your ancestors and the 1918 pandemic

Carina and 1918 Pandemic

One of our library officers, Carina Leitch, has a strong interest in family history and WW1 history. The COVID-19 pandemic got her thinking about how her ancestors coped with the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918.

She started doing some research in our My Heritage database and came up with some very interesting reading:

“As I think about our how are lives have been affected during COVID-19 my thoughts have turned to life in Australia during the Spanish Flu of 1918/1919. The Spanish flu did not originate in Spain as the name suggests,  instead the first cases of the flu were reported there as Spain did not have the strict World War I censorship as was in Europe.

The Spanish flu killed between 40 -100 million people worldwide. In Australia the Spanish flu began to appear in early 1919 as soldiers returned home from Western Europe after World War I. Forty percent of the Australian population fell ill with a total of 15,000 people dying as the virus spread. In Aboriginal communities the death rate was up to 50%.

One positive outcome from the pandemic was that the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) were established during WWI to ease Australia’s dependence on imported vaccines (sounds familiar). One of the more well-known victims of the Spanish flu was Captain John McCrae, possibly Canada’s first death attributed to the Spanish Flu. John McCrae is more widely known as the author of the moving poem “In Flanders Field”.

I now wonder how the Spanish flu affected my family and turn to My Heritage to search the collections for some answers. Using electoral rolls, military records and newspaper articles I discovered that my Grandfather, Hugh Argyle Leitch, enlisted in World War I from Australia in November 1916 after returning to Victoria from working in outback Queensland. He spent the final two years of the war on the Western Front around Amiens and Villers Bretonneux and after the war he trained as a mechanic in England before spending the next eight months travelling around Europe as he waited for a troop ship to become available to ship him home. Hugh did not return to Australia till 29th November 1919 avoiding the worst of the Spanish Flu outbreak in Australia. I am puzzled and will need to research further how he was able to travel freely through France, Germany, England, and Scotland during the time of pandemic. And more remarkably how after fighting on the Western Front he did not contract the illness. From family records we know that he was neither a drinker nor a smoker and I can only think that this along with coming from a somewhat wealthy country family and not suffering from serious injury from war he escaped becoming a statistic during the pandemic. 

In Australia quarantine was the swift response to the pandemic. Some victory parades and reunions of returning soldiers were cancelled, schools were closed for part of 1919, Libraries, cinemas and entertainment halls were also closed. Hospitals were inundated with sick people, the Exhibition Building in the city was converted to a hospital staffed by Nuns and Brothers of Religious orders. Various “remedies” were suggested from flinging open doors and windows to allow fresh air to flow through, hot water and Bovril and the wearing face masks as compulsory. A vaccine produced by CSL went some way towards reducing the death total in those inoculated. 

I encourage you all to start your research with My Heritage. It’s free from home, you just need your library card and password to start your explorations into your own Family History.