The Not-So-Spanish Flu

Friday, January 31st, 2014

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.


  1. Anomaly UK says:

    The stereotype of the lazy Chinese seems to have been widespread in that era, contrasting sharply with the “ant-like” stereotype of my childhood or the “Tiger Mom” of today.

    Since my knowledge of early-20th century culture comes almost exclusively from detective novels, here’s some Agatha Christie to illustrate:

    I got up and took from my desk where it always accompanied me a photograph of my favourite Chinese picture. It represents an old man sitting beneath a tree playing cat’s cradle with a piece of string on his fingers and toes.

    ‘It was in the Chinese exhibition,’ I said. ‘It fascinated me. Allow me to introduce you. It is called “Old Man enjoying the Pleasure of Idleness”.’

    Aimeé Griffith was unimpressed by my lovely picture. She said: ‘Oh well, we all know what the Chinese are like!’

    [a little later]

    When Joanna and Megan came back from their walk I showed Megan my Chinese picture. Her face lighted up. She said, ‘it’s heavenly, isn’t it?’
    ‘That _is_ rather my opinion.’
    Her forehead was crinkling in the way I knew so well.
    ‘But it would be difficult, wouldn’t it?’
    ‘To be idle?’
    ‘No, not to be idle — but to enjoy the pleasures of it. You’d have to be very old —’
    She paused. I said: ‘He _is_ an old man.’
    ‘I don’t mean old that way. Not _age_. I mean old in — in…’
    ‘You mean,’ I said, ‘that one would have to attain a very high state of civilization for the thing to present itself to you in that way — a fine point of sophistication? I think I shall complete your education, Megan, by reading to you one hundred poems translated from the Chinese.’

    [Those two characters end up married]

    Of course, there was another stereotype of the Chinese current at the time, which Christie employed in the novel The Big Four. But that seems to be a pastiche of Sax Rohmer and his Fu Manchu, whereas The Moving Finger, which I quoted above, is one of Christie’s most delicate and touching mysteries. (There’s another mystery for me, associated with the novel, which I won’t go into).

    The picture the character in my extract is not invented for the novel, she mentions it in her autobiography:

    “So what I plan to do is to enjoy the pleasures of memory—not hurrying myself—writing a few pages from time to time. It is a task that will probably go on for years. But why do I call it a task? It is an indulgence.

    “I once saw an old Chinese scroll that I loved. It featured an old man sitting under a tree playing cat’s cradle. It was called ‘Old Man enjoying the pleasures of Idleness.’ I’ve never forgotten it.”

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