Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Christchurch Cycling Craze #9 - The 1918 Influenza Epidemic

A nurse leaving a sub-depot on her daily round of visits, during the 1918 influenza epidemic, Christchurch [1918]. The Weekly Press, 4 December 1918. Christchurch City Libraries.

In the influenza pandemic between October and December 1918, New Zealand lost about half as many people to influenza as it had in the whole of the First World War.

The death toll had topped 8600 before the pandemic subsided in December, with Maori affected disproportionately with an overall rate of death of 42.3 per thousand people, seven times that of the European death rate of 5.8 per thousand people.

The flu's impact on communities was uneven too. Some were hit hard while others escaped without much loss. The most consistently lethal sites for death from influenza were the military camps such as those at Featherston and Trentham where the rates were 22.6 and 23.5 deaths per thousand people respectively.

With the medical profession already stretched to the limit by wartime conditions with many doctors and nurses serving in the military abroad, volunteers were called upon to serve in providing medical care, food service, transportation, funeral and burial services. The bicycle provided the means for volunteers and nurses to make house calls upon the ill & dying at a time when quarantine regulations and the lack of manpower prevented transportation to hospitals and temporary treatment stations.

Walter Ford Gibbs (1893-1918), Kuaka's great uncle, was one of 458 Christchurch residents to die of influenza.

Walter Ford Gibbs, 1893-1918

Like many of those most severely ill or who died, Walter was young. In early November 1918, Christchurch was crowded with people attending the Show weekend races and as a cab driver Walter would have no doubt appreciated the increased business. But the large crowds were the ideal breeding ground and transmitting device for influenza.

After becoming ill, Walter was transported from his home at 20 Melrose Street, a small side street just south of Bealey Avenue to Christchurch hospital. He died there on 14 November 1918. Two days later he was buried in an unmarked grave in the Sydenham cemetery in Simeon Street. He was just 25 years old.

It wasn't until towards the end of the century that a modern generation "re-discovered" Walter and restored him to family memory.

1 comment:

Jayne said...

How sad.
That Spanish flu killed so many, the young and supposedly healthy, it was probably a frightening time.