The flu pandemic of 1918 became known as the Spanish flu — because Spain was not at war and thus wasn’t practicing war-time censorship. So, where did it start?
The deadly “Spanish flu” claimed more lives than World War I, which ended the same year the pandemic struck. Now, new research is placing the flu’s emergence in a forgotten episode of World War I: the shipment of Chinese laborers across Canada in sealed train cars.
Historian Mark Humphries of Canada’s Memorial University of Newfoundland says that newly unearthed records confirm that one of the side stories of the war—the mobilization of 96,000 Chinese laborers to work behind the British and French lines on World War I’s Western Front—may have been the source of the pandemic.
Historian Christopher Langford has shown that China suffered a lower mortality rate from the Spanish flu than other nations did, suggesting some immunity was at large in the population because of earlier exposure to the virus.
In the new report, Humphries finds archival evidence that a respiratory illness that struck northern China in November 1917 was identified a year later by Chinese health officials as identical to the Spanish flu.
He also found medical records indicating that more than 3,000 of the 25,000 Chinese Labor Corps workers who were transported across Canada en route to Europe starting in 1917 ended up in medical quarantine, many with flu-like symptoms.
In reaction to anti-Chinese feelings rife in western Canada at the time, the trains that carried the workers from Vancouver were sealed, Humphries says. Special Railway Service Guards watched the laborers, who were kept in camps surrounded by barbed wire. Newspapers were banned from reporting on their movement.
Roughly 3,000 of the workers ended up in medical quarantine, their illnesses often blamed on their “lazy” natures by Canadian doctors, Humphries said: “They had very stereotypical, racist views of the Chinese.”
Doctors treated sore throats with castor oil and sent the Chinese back to their camps.
The Chinese laborers arrived in southern England by January 1918 and were sent to France, where the Chinese Hospital at Noyelles-sur-Mer recorded hundreds of their deaths from respiratory illness.