John Rowand Night Recap – Quarantine: The Spanish Flu of 1918-1919

On Tuesday, April 23, a capacity crowd of EDHS members and friends gathered at the University of Alberta Faculty Club for our annual John Rowand Night. Named in honour of a major figure of Edmonton’s fur trade period, John Rowand Night gives us a chance to socialize over dinner, to hold our Annual General Meeting and to enjoy another of our Speaker Series historical lectures. This year, we were pleased to welcome Dr. Trudy Cowan and her presentation, Quarantine –The Spanish Flu of 1918-1919.

While the Spanish Flu is widely understood as a tragedy that struck a world already reeling from the slaughter of the First World War, it is also an enduring story of modern medicine. Dr. Cowan took us through the unsolved mystery of the epidemic’s origins (it only became identified with Spain since journalists in the neutral nation, facing no wartime censorship rules, reported freely on the terrible illness of King Alfonso XIII); the unbelievable death toll (roughly 50,000 in Canada – not far off the 66,000 killed in the Great War – and 50 to 100 million worldwide); the astonishing reach of the disease into every peopled corner of the globe, and the heartbreaking failure of public health resources in meeting the threat. Dr. Cowan reminded us that the flu strains we still get inoculated against every winter are not-so-distant relatives of the devastating flu of a century ago, and are themselves surprisingly deadly. 

Quarantine –The Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 was a riveting revelation of human loss told through the clinical authority of archival sources and photographs, a prime lesson in the relevance of history to our own times.      Dr. Trudy Cowan has worked for many years in heritage and museum circles, having led historic developments at Fort Calgary and Lougheed House. Among numerous distinctions, she has served with the Heritage Canada Foundation/Canada’s National Trust and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. A founder of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta, she was an advisor in the move and restoration of the Montifore Institute, or Little Synagogue, to Calgary’s Heritage Park. She is also an author, whose book Quarantine: Keep Out! tells the story of the Spanish Flu epidemic for young readers.