Friday, April 2, 2010

A Very Short History of Early Border Medicine and the Spanish Influenza Epidemic of 1918

Beginning in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s a recognizable medical infrastructure was present in the cities of Windsor and Detroit. Albeit, this infrastructure still possessed many of the characteristics that one would associate with a eclectic frontier medical landscape in which regulations and institutions had yet to be consolidated. Nevertheless, the facilities and practitioners were in place to address the challenges to public health that the growth of industry and urbanization during the early 20th century would bring to the border cities. 

Between 1917 and 1935 their was a rapid increase in the number of health care workers in the border city region. This growth in the healthcare professions matched the significant population growth that both Windsor and Detroit were experiencing at that time as a result of a burgeoning automotive manufacturing sector. This increase in population and health care workers brought with it a realization that the existing health infrastructure was inadequate to meet either of their needs and that there was an urgent need to create an updated infrastructure of public administration and urban services.  

     A Red Cross unit at Detroit's Utley Library

However, the main impetus for improving existing medical infrastructures in both border cities was arguably the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. The epidemic took a heavy toll on both sides of the border and revealed the limitations of many of that periods public health institutions. In Windsor during the months of October and November 1918 influenza claimed at least 126 local residents. Newspapers reported that Hotel-Dieu hospital was overcrowded with patients and that at the peak of the crisis the areas medical institutions exhibited a “lack of uniformity in regulations governing the control of contagious disease.” 

In Detroit Red Cross workers made daily rounds picking up the dead. 

Detroit fared no better. In that same two month period the disease claimed 3,814 residents. Newspapers published long lists of the dead, quarantine signs became common, death wreaths and black bunting draped many homes. Funerals were hurried affairs with few mourners. Coffins stored near funeral homes were often stolen by impatient and fearful family members, while bodies were placed on porches for daily pickup. Hence, the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 jolted city officials awake and forced them to rethink the way public health was being delivered. The days of individual doctors treating individual patients was at its end. Health care on both sides of the border was now viewed as a public utility that needed to be regulated by government bodies and corporate concerns.


When the flu ravaged the world. By Vivian M. Baulch. The Detroit News, August 31, 1996.

Border City Medicine: Windsor’s History of Innovative Health Practice. Steven Palmer and Steve Malone. Cultures of Health: A Historical AnthologyOctober 7, 2009.

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