Volunteerism and sacrifice at USask: Spanish flu's toll not forgotten

The Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 marched across the Prairies, killing thousands in Saskatchewan. Its victims outnumbered the soldiers from the province who died during the First World War.

Toward the end of the Great War, in which some 11,000,000 died, a world-wide influenza epidemic killed an additional 50 million people. (Photo: USask Archives)

As the Spanish flu arrived in Saskatoon, Walter Murray, then the University of Saskatchewan’s president, gave people a chance to leave the campus if they wished, then ordered a quarantine.

 “It was a bold move on Murray’s part and I think it limited the number of deaths associated with the University of Saskatchewan,” said historian and distinguished professor emeritus Bill Waiser, who recently spoke with The StarPhoenix at how the deadly pandemic affected people in Saskatchewan a century ago.

The campus for the most part was isolated from the rest of the city, save for Emmanuel College, which was used by as a temporary hospital during the outbreak. In granting the use of the building on Oct. 19, 1018, the college only asked that the city fumigate the building and bedding when they were no longer needed.

Emmanuel College functioned as an emergency treatment centre; the volunteers were mainly women.

One of the student volunteers who assisted at Emmanuel College became ill after two days and died several days later, Murray reported to the man’s mother in a letter. The student, William G. Hamilton, received full funeral honours, including a procession at the university. Hamilton, a widower, left behind three young children. Murray wrote to his mother that if he had known the young man had children depending upon him, they would have tried to dissuade him from offering his services.

“Your son gave his life for others, and his sacrifice was as great as that of any soldier who died on the field of battle,” Murray wrote. “It will ever be an inspiration for the young men and women who come to the university.”

The names of the volunteers who stepped in to help and lost their lives are etched in a stairwell in the Peter McKinnon building on campus.

Read more on this story at The StarPhoenix.

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