Saanich School Children, Infectious diseases and the “Flu”

Third Reader Class, Tolmie School, 1916. Many of these children would have had measles and or chicken pox at some point during their schooling and many would have the “Spanish Flu”. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

At the end of the 1917-1918 school year, the most common infectious diseases affecting Saanich school children were “whooping cough, mumps, measles, chicken pox and scarlet fever.” (Seventh Annual Report on the Medical Inspection of Schools of British Columbia for the year ending June 30 1918, Medical Inspector C.D. Holmes) Provincial protocols were in place for contagious diseases among pupils, but the advent of a world-wide illness that would close schools could only be imagined. Here is what happened before and during the “Spanish Flu” epidemic of 1918-1919.

Teachers were required by law to send children home if they had symptoms of infectious disease. The School Health Inspection Act 1910 stated: “Whenever a child shows symptoms of small-pox, scarlet fever, measles, chicken-pox, tuberculosis, diphtheria, or influenza, tonsillitis, whooping-cough, mumps, scabies, ringworm, trachoma, or any other contagious or infectious disease, he shall immediately be sent home by the teacher in charge, or as soon as a safe and proper conveyance can be found, if such is necessary, and the Local Board of Health and Board of School Trustees shall at once be notified by such teacher.” The child could not return to school until they had received a medical certificate from the school medical officer. (But as we will see, parents persisted in sending their children to school, necessitating in some cases school closures)

Saanich medical health officer and school inspector Dr. C. Denton Holmes wrote: “The diseases for which school closures or the exclusion of particular divisions or particular children in the school, is required, are principally those which spread by infection directly from person to person, such as diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles, whooping cough, epidemic influenza and small pox…” (“The Health of the School Children”, The Daily Colonist June 23 1918)

Detail from the Annual Report of the Medical Inspection of Public Schools of British Columbia, . “Acute Fevers which have occurred during the past year” in Saanich Schools.

We can learn about Saanich schools previous experiences with infectious diseases from school medical inspection reports and contemporary news items 1911 to 1918.

The first school medical inspection under the Schools Medical Inspection Act (1910) was in 1911 at Tolmie School, the largest “suburban” school in Saanich. Of 157 students inspected, these were the infectious diseases and acute fevers:

  • nits – 32
  • measles – 22
  • diphtheria – 5
  • tonsilitis – 4
  • dysentery – 3
  • infantile paralysis – 2
  • anemia – 1
  • pleurisy – 1
  • varicella – 1

From then on, all Saanich schools were inspected, so we get a better picture of what was happening throughout the district. In the 1912-1913 school year (13 schools), measles was prevalent. Tolmie School had an “epidemic of measles, hence large number of absentees”. Gordon Head School had 1 case of scarlatina (scarlet fever). In the 1913-1914 school year, in all of the schools, there were 5 cases of diphtheria, 4 cases of measles and 1 case of scarlet fever. In the 1914-1915 school year, there were 11 cases of chicken pox at Craigflower School and 10 cases of chicken pox at McKenzie Avenue School. 

In Spring 1916, there was an outbreak of scarlet fever in Saanich Peninsula. The Daily Colonist reported on May 30 1916: “The schools of West Saanich, Keatings and Saanichton will not re-open until June 5, being the order of Dr. C.D. Holmes, health officer. It is explained that it is thought unwise to assemble the children until all the possibility of a recurrence of scarlet fever epidemic is over.” The Victoria Daily Times reported on June 2 1916, “Dr. C. Denton Holmes has closed the schools at Keatings, West Saanich and Saanichton until Wednesday June 7 1916 owing to the presence of a few cases of scarlet fever.”

A measles epidemic in British Columbia started in late 1916 and carried into 1917. The Twenty-first Annual Report of the Board of Public Health states: The greatest number reported was from the City of Victoria some 3,000 cases in the city and districts around”. In mid February, an outbreak in Victoria’s Fairfield and Foul Bay caused the city health officials had closed and were fumigating Margaret Jenkins School. The situation was also serious in the North End of the city (near the border with Saanich’s Ward 2 and 7). (Eventually by the Easter Holidays, Victoria had closed all their schools) What was Saanich’s experience? At the March 12 1917 Saanich School Board meeting, “Dr. Holmes found that there were several schools in Saanich in which there were cases of measles or chicken pox but not serious enough to have the schools closed.” (The Daily Colonist March 13 1917)

“It is very wrong to send a child who has been exposed to measles to school.”

Maria Lawson, The Daily Colonist February 27 1917

As we’ve seen from the data above, although the law banned infectious children from attending school, they attended nonetheless. Saanich Schools medical officer Dr. C. Denton Holmes wrote in 1918: “My experience in Saanich, and I fear it is the experience of medical health officers generally, is that the public does not take sufficient precautions with their children in preventing the spread of infection to other children. There is a tendency to hide or mask the disease, or pass it off as very mild and so not likely to injure others.” Dr. Henry Esson Young, Provincial Health Officer, expressed the same concerns in the Twenty-first Annual Report of the Board of Public Health about measles: “Unfortunately the public look upon measles as a very minor trouble, and their chief concern seems to be when an epidemic does come, for all their children to have it and get it over with.” (In fact, as Dr. Young noted, the danger of measles are the troubles that follow it – bronchopneumonia, eye and ear infection and deaf mutism.) Dr. C. Denton Holmes reminded the parents: “Remember that the mildest case of some disease may be the means of infecting another and more susceptible child, with a severe and perhaps fatal dose of the same disease.”

Yet the schools themselves could be encouraging children to attend. The school system rewarded children for punctuality and regularity so there was an incentive for them to go to school. Daily Colonist columnist Maria Lawson (a former school principal) was well aware of this fact and commiserated with the mothers: “Many children who are ambitious to gain the honor roll for attendance do not want to stay home when they feel ill in the morning.”

Roll of Honour for Punctuality and Regularity, Edith Ethel Pridmore, Craigflower School. The Roll of Honour was a major achievement for students, so they did not want to miss a day of school, even if possibly ill. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

Obviously, parents may just not have known what symptoms to look for in a possible infectious disease. Thus, health education became important. The Infantile Paralysis (polio) scare of 1916 is a good example of how education was used. In Summer 1916 there were many cases in the Eastern United States, which became hyped up in the local media (Victoria newspapers ran news items almost daily). The public got really scared about this and took it very seriously (much more seriously than the measles!)

Maria Lawson, of The Daily Colonist’s “In Women’s Realm” ran a column on “Infantile Paralysis” on August 1 1916: “Mothers and all who have care of children will be glad to learn what Dr. Simon Flexner [greatest authority on infantile paralysis] has to say…” The main focus was on cleanliness: “personal care of the body has a great deal to do with preventing the spread of disease.”

Dr. Henry Esson Young, who became the Provincial Health Officer in 1916, was a chief proponent of preventative medicine and health education. The British Columbia health authorities decided to go with a wide publicity campaign. “Thus through publicity we could hope to discover practically all of the cases, a matter of utmost importance in the control of all epidemics. Besides this, and equally important, we could hope to educate the people so they might observe the precautions which seemed to be indicated…Children have never before been so carefully watched over by parents; never before have the parents been so mindful of the proper care of food and drink; never before have homes been kept so clean.”

Six months later, during the measles epidemic, Saanich and Victoria School Boards produced materials to educate the children and their parents. The Daily Colonist reported on February 20 1917 “The Saanich School Board on the advice of Dr. C.D. Holmes, Saanich Medical Health Officer, will have a leaflet printed and distributed among the teachers and pupils in Saanich schools, giving details of the symptoms of measles and other contagious diseases. The leaflet also gives instruction how to care for any such cases. In some of the schools several cases of measles have been found and this is precautionary measure to prevent an epidemic in Saanich.” The Daily Colonist reported on March 15 1917, “Under [school medical officer] Dr. Wesson’s supervision, the School board is to have printed 5,000 circulars dealing with measles, their cause, effects and prevention. These circulars will be distributed among the pupils to take home to their parents.”

Whether the education leaflets had any effect is debatable, as in the 1917-1918 school year, as in Victoria, Sir James Douglas School was closed for a week because a child with a mild form of scarlet fever had been attending school. Tolmie School had 44 cases of measles and 23 cases of scarlet fever. There were also several case of whooping cough in McKenzie Avenue and Strawberry Vale Schools.

On June 23 1918, The Daily Colonist published a feature by Saanich school medical officer Dr. C. Denton Holmes on “The Health of the School Children”. Dr. Denton Holmes stated: “It is not good policy to close school without real cause, as it means great interference with the educational work of the district and it is a measure which fortunately has not often to be enforced.” Little did he know that a few months later he would be compelled to take this drastic measure.

Dr. C.D. Holmes further commented: “It is not good policy to close school without real cause, as it means great interference with the educational work of the district and it is a measure which fortunately has not often to be enforced.” Thus wrote Dr. C.D. Holmes in June 1918. But a few months later he was compelled to enforce this policy.

Lovely day, children came back from school. No school for 2 weeks.

Mrs. Helen Malon, Tuesday October 8 1918

On Tuesday October 8 1918, Tolmie School students Pierre Malon (11) and Yvonne Malon (12) returned home to 68 Burnside Road. Saanich Schools had just been closed – ostensibly for two weeks – but the Malon children would finally return to Tolmie School in mid January 1919. 

In early October 1918, influenza a.k.a. “Spanish Flu” hit the West Coast and British Columbia imposed the so-called “Flu Ban”. This letter dated Wednesday October 9 1918 from the Provincial Secretary to Municipality of Saanich explains: “I beg to inform you that the Provincial Board of Health has proclaimed regulations empowering all municipalities to close all schools, churches, theatres and other public meeting places to prevent spread of Spanish Influenza in this Province. Please confer with your health department and advise us at once to the conditions in your Municipality and as to the necessity of putting these regulations into effect there. The City of Victoria has already taken action.”

Provincial Secretary’s letter to the District Municipality of Saanich, October 9 1918. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

Saanich had also taken action. The Daily Colonist, October 8 1918 reported: “All the schools in Saanich will close today and remain closed until all possibilities of an epidemic have disappeared. Dr. C.D. Holmes, Medical Health Officer for Saanich schools, issued his dictum last night, and in announcing the closing of schools, stated that it was probable that the classes would suspend for about two weeks.”

Saanich Clerk of Municipal Council informs the Provincial Secretary that schools have been closed since October 8th. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

In the meantime, Pierre and Yvonne Malon continued their lessons at the home of Mrs. Jane Darbyshire (42 Burnside Road), a popular teacher at Tolmie School. Mrs. Malon’s diary makes these notes: Thursday October 10 1918 – Yvonne and Pierre went to Mrs. Darbyshire’s for lessons in the morning, Monday October 21 1918 – Pierre went to lessons, Wednesday October 23 1918 – Children went to lessons as usual.

A few weeks earlier, Dr. C.D. Holmes’ increasing commitments with the Wounded Soldiers Commission compelled him to resign his position as municipal health officer and medical officer to the Saanich schools. But during the initial weeks of the epidemic he stayed on: “Dr. C.D. Holmes…has been carrying on the duties during the emergency caused by the influenza epidemic, but is anxious that permanent appointment shall be made as soon as possible.” (The Daily Colonist October 19 1918).

Saanich Council thus appointed Dr. James P. Vye as Saanich municipal health officer and medical health officer to the schools. The appointment met with some discussion at the next Saanich School Board meeting:  “Trustee Watson thereupon remarked, ‘Putting it bluntly, the salary for this position is paid by the School Board, and we were not consulted as to his appointment.’ It was then pointed out that the appointment was made by the Council under the pressure of need caused by the influenza epidemic, and that if the School Board did not choose to ratify the appointment, there was every probability that Dr. Vye would resign from the municipal office. The appointment was then confirmed, to take effect from November 1.” (The Daily Colonist November 14 1918) 

On November 20 1918, the City of Victoria’s “Flu Ban” was lifted and plans were made to re-open the schools. But Saanich was not ready to follow: “Some discussion arose during the meeting with regard to the lifting of the influenza ban, it being the opinion of the councillors that to reopen the schools, churches and public halls would be perilous until all danger from the epidemic had disappeared. Dr. Vye, Medical Health Officer, it was reported, was extremely non-committal on the matter.” (Victoria Daily Times November 20 1918)

The Saanich School Board empowers Medical Health Officer James Vye to decide when to re-open schools. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

In a letter written by Saanich Municipality to Dr. J.P. Vye on Wednesday November 27 1918, the Saanich School Board gave Dr. Vye authority for opening schools: “At the meeting of the board of school trustees held yesterday I was instructed to inform you that the Board ask you to take whatever steps you see fit to open the schools in Saanich, either in whole or in part, and that you be given full power to set the date for such opening.” Vye did nothing for the present.The Daily Colonist, December 1 1918 reported: “With the removal during the past week of the ban against meetings in Saanich, all the churches will be open today. There is to be no reopening of the Saanich schools for the present. The matter was left to the complete discretion of Medical Health Officer Dr. Vye by the school board, and he has decided that the time has not yet come for the pupils to return to their studies.” (It was just as well. Victoria Schools opened on December 2 and closed again on December 10, reportedly due to “flu” cases)

In the meantime, however, Saanich school children were free to go into downtown Victoria. Pierre and Yvonne Malon went to the moving picture houses, the public library, watched the Santa Claus Parade and visited Toyland at Spencer’s Department Store.

No sooner had the flu ban lifted and Spencers was expecting “thousands of boys and girls” to Toy and Book Land in time for Christmas shopping. Note that schools were still closed all over greater Victoria but stores, library, churches and movie theatres were all open to the many children (who would soon be the victims of the next wave of “flu”). The Daily Colonist November 23 1918

A second wave of the “flu” soon hit the Victoria area, this time affecting children. By Sunday December 15 1918, all the Malon family “had colds, so did not go to church.” On December 18, Yvonne was not well and her mother “went down town to get powders for her.” Yvonne was “still pretty feverish” the next day and the doctor came to see her. Yvonne got better but on January 2 1919, Mrs. Malon wrote in her diary: “Doctor came to see Pierre who was not at all well. Temp very high.” The next day Pierre was “about the same, still pretty seedy.” On January 4, the doctor came to see Pierre and changed his medicine. Mrs. Malon and Yvonne went downtown to get it. Pierre was soon up and about, but now his mother got ill. Mrs. Malon’s diary reads: “Wednesday January 8 1919 to Monday January 13 1919 – I stayed in bed with the Flu.”

Saanich schools were due to open on Monday January 6 1919, but on Sunday January 5 1919, The Daily Colonist reported: “No Schools In Saanich – As a precautionary measure Dr J.P. Vye, Medical Health Officer to the Saanich School Board, has prohibited the opening of the Saanich public schools for the present, stating there are many cases scattered about the municipality.” Schools re-opened a week later. Yvonne and Pierre Malon returned to their classes at Tolmie School. Mrs. Helen Malon wrote in her diary on Monday January 13 1919: “The children started school again and both got a rise to a higher grade, much to their joy.”

But a note of caution — children who had been ill may not have been back to one hundred per cent health. This is a pertinent comment from City of Victoria School Inspector Edward Paul in the Forty-Eighth Annual Report of the Public Schools of British Columbia that would likely relate to Saanich: “While the actual loss of time of Victoria Schools – practically 2 ½ months – the health of many of the pupils was seriously affected by their previous illness and considerable time elapsed after their return to school before they were able to throw their normal energy into their work.”

Mrs. Malon’s diary shows that Pierre was not quite recovered from the “flu” (or perhaps she was being cautious): Thursday January 30 1919 – Pierre had a cold and did not go to school, Friday January 31 1919 – Cold and bright. Pierre did not go to school, but was well enough to go out a little while. A few months later, Pierre was ill again — Thursday May 1 1919 – Pierre not well, in bed. (But he was well enough two days later to “see some baseball match”)

“Flu” cases among Saanich school children, 1918-1919 school year  

SchoolsClassroomsStudentsFlu cases
Cedar Hill3921
Gordon Head23415
Mackenzie Avenue413210
North Dairy3575
Prospect Lake1243
Royal Oak2538
Strawberry Vale28118
Tillicum Road413729

Information on classroom size and students enrolled comes from the Forty-Eighth Annual Report of the Public Schools of Province of British Columbia 1918-1919. Information on flu cases per school comes from the Eighth Annual Report of the Medical Inspection of Schools for the Province of British Columbia.

The “flu” numbers do not specify when in the year the influenza cases happened, i.e. Whether they occurred during the “Flu Ban” closures from October 8 1918 to January 15 1919 or after (my assumption is that the information is on cases during the closures, reported to the medical officer during a spring 1919 medical inspection).

Not surprisingly, school children in the most populated “suburban” areas, Wards 2 and 7 show a higher percentage of influenza. This assessment aligns with a statement made by Saanich Chief of Police on November 5 1918 that the majority of “flu” cases were in Wards 2 and 7.

  • Tolmie School – 33%
  • Cloverdale School – 27%
  • Tillicum School – 21%
  • Craigflower School – 18%

These were all children who lived in areas connected to public transit to downtown Victoria and would have been easily able to go into town to shop and to the movie theatres and public library which opened the third week in November, though the schools were still closed. However, it can’t be said that rural school children fared better because they were further away from crowds. Two farming communities show the same picture: A considerable number of students in Keatings had influenza but none in nearby Saanichton and West Saanich (Brentwood Bay). Gordon Head School had almost fifty per cent of its students with the “flu”, and was kept closed longer than the other schools (it re-opened in early February 1919). Yet, just down the road at Cedar Hill School, only one of 92 children was sick. As we know, the germs are passed by close contact. These numbers suggests that the children were convening together in groups outside of the school at various homes.

Dr. Vye is preparing a short table of instructions which the board will have printed and a copy placed in the front of every child’s text book, so that pupils and parents may know what is meant by germs and how to prevent them.

The Daily Colonist January 31 1919

A second wave of “flu” in late December/early January targetted children, but by mid January 1919, Saanich school children were back at school. On the advice of medical health officer J.P. Vye, the [Saanich School] Board undertook a campaign to promote the teaching of health protection and the prevention of disease.

The Saanich School Board authorized the printing of 2,000 leaflets explaining fundamental health regulations and gave instructions for the insertion of a copy in the pupils’ readers and explanation at frequent intervals by the teachers. “The board will instruct the teachers to hold catechisms on these points, with a view of making the children thoroughly familiar with them, the information being applicable to other diseases besides influenza.” (The Daily Colonist January 31 1919)

The Daily Colonist January 31 1919

We can see this “health propaganda” in action a few months later in May 1919. Maria Lawson of The Daily Colonist spent a day visiting rural Saanich schools. At West Saanich School “an interesting lesson on microbes beneficial and harmful was given by the principal in a way that should help not only to make the children but the community more healthy…” (“Among the Country Children of the Saanich Schools”, The Daily Colonist May 25 1919)

But, in spite of all their efforts, the children of West Saanich School still got sick.The Daily Colonist, February 18 1920: “The West Saanich School was closed some time ago owing to the fact that so many children were away, and one of the teachers ill. It will reopen on Monday. The Keating School has also been closed about a week through sickness among the teachers and inability to obtain substitutes.”

Thank you to Joan Nicholson for sharing Mrs. Helen Malon’s diary. This story is part of a wider research project on health and community in WWI era Saanich BC. See also Better Babies of Saanich and A Motor Car for the Saanich Nurses.