University Archives Blog

UBC and the last great pandemic, 1918-19

Businesses, educational institutions, and many other institutions have closed or at least severely limited public access.  Hospitals are struggling to deal with waves of sick individuals, with other facilities being converted into makeshift hospitals.  Citizens are being told to stay home as much as possible, and to avoid gathering in groups.  Everybody is listening to news reports from foreign countries, documenting mounting death tolls and rising social tensions, while waiting with a growing sense of dread for the situation at home to get worse.

While this sounds like the current COVID-19 epidemic, the situation described applies to a similar crisis that hit Vancouver and the University of British Columbia over a century ago: the great influenza epidemic of 1918-19 (a.k.a. the “Spanish flu”), that afflicted the entire world as the First World War was drawing to a close.

The first case of influenza was reported in Vancouver on 5 October 1918; the first death was recorded on the 10th.  The number of daily reported cases spiraled upwards rapidly, reaching 522 on the 22nd October, while the death rate peaked on 27 October when 24 died that day.

Life on the original UBC Fairview campus (where Vancouver General Hospital stands today) began to change within a few days of the local appearance of the flu virus.  By 14 October local hospitals had become so overcrowded that the Auditorium and an adjacent classroom building were taken over by VGH.  An improvised hospital ward with 100 beds was quickly set up, exclusively for influenza cases – access to students and all other non-medical personnel was cut off.  The Board of Governors declared that they had “consented to this occupation on the representation of the city health officer and of the hospital board that such additional accommodation in the vicinity of the hospital is absolutely necessary in the present situation, and their assurance that the use of the buildings for this purpose will not be a source of danger to the students” (The Province, 14 October 1918).

Closure of the auditorium forced the relocation of several classes.  Some were moved to the local Baptist Church, others to the science drafting room, and one was even held in the stack room of the Library.  Students’ Council meetings had to be held in a corridor, among stacked furniture removed from the council room.  By Friday the 18th a meeting of the student body had passed a resolution asking the Board of Governors to close the university until conditions improved.

The announcement that University classes would be suspended due to the epidemic was made on 20 October.  The closure would last five weeks, forcing the re-vamping of the entire academic calendar.  Christmas exams would eventually be delayed until February, and the second term extended by two weeks.  All student activities, such as sporting events, theatre productions, and publication of the Ubyssey, were also cancelled.  When the war ended on 11 November, there was no opportunity for the University community, born in war-time only three years earlier, to celebrate.

Not only were regular classes disrupted by the epidemic – other educational groups based on the campus saw their activities interrupted as well.  These included the Vancouver Institute, which had to cancel or re-schedule several lectures that fall, and the Vancouver Natural History Society.  Evening classes in botany were also postponed indefinitely.

Although classes and social activities were suspended, UBC students and staff did not remain idle.  Some served as orderlies at the hospital, while others worked for the city relief offices and other organizations helping citizens cope during the crisis.  The women of the student Red Cross Society, led by Modern Languages instructor Isabel MacInnes, volunteered as nurses in the VGH influenza ward.  Some of them also found time to make over 300 flu masks and sew 65 pairs of pajamas.  The demonstrated importance of nurses in the treatment of flu patients, whether trained professionals or volunteers, would serve as an impetus to the establishment of UBC’s nursing programme in 1919.

Many students became sick, either during the virus’s first devastating onslaught that fall, or in one of the epidemic’s later waves.  Three students died: H.G. (Horace) Stedman, Wilfrid Moore, and David W. Murray – a fourth, Gerald M. “Shorty” Harvey, had enlisted in the armed forces and died from influenza during basic training.  All were eulogized in the 1919 Annual as “brilliant… promising young men” whose deaths were “deeply felt by students and faculty alike”.  Enrollment still numbered only several hundred, and the University was still a very small, close-knit community.  The deaths of these young men, seemingly spared the horrors of war only to be cut down by disease, affected everybody especially hard.

After the epidemic’s peak in late October the infection and death rates went into steep decline, and the flu had seemingly all but disappeared by the end of November.  Classes resumed on 26 November, and within a week academic and social activities had returned to near-regular routines.  However, the epidemic would soon return: two more waves followed, peaking in January and March, both of which were less extensive than the original outbreak, but with a relatively higher fatality rate.

And then it was over.  Students were left to look back upon what they had survived, and what they had accomplished.  As was written in the “Foreword” of the 1919 Annual, with just a hint of stiff-upper-lipped understatement:

The work of all classes was much disorganised and everyone felt a little out of poise.  But it has been highly pleasing to see the mutual feeling between the Faculty and student body in attempting to regain that which was lost, and to make the present count for the most.

Hopefully, once the current COVID-19 epidemic has subsided, today’s UBC community will be able to look back with similar sentiments.


Tuum Est by Harry T. Logan (1958)
UBC Scrapbooks (1890-1941) – clippings from local newspapers
1919 Annual
Andrews, Margaret W., “Epidemic and Public Health: Influenza in Vancouver, 1918-1919”, BC Studies, No. 34, Summer 1977.

University Archives’ closure (UPDATED)

The University of British Columbia Archives is now closed to the public until further notice. Archives staff are working remotely and are able to assist with some reference questions. Inquiries can be sent through our contact form.

During this period, be sure to explore digitized materials from the Archives’ collections available on our website and through UBC Library’s Open Collections.

See also UBC Library’s official announcement for further information on Library-wide closures.

Our sincere apologies for the inconvenience.

*** UPDATE: Please also see the Remote Resources and Services Guide for UBC Archives and UBC Rare Books and Special Collections for more details and assistance.

Enhanced access to our historical photographs

The University Archives has added a feature to our website that enhances access to our historical photograph collections.

Most of our photographs are acquired as part of a distinct fonds or collection.  As the records are arranged and described, each photograph is given a distinct catalogue number or “identifier”.  Each identifier has two parts, a collection number and an item number, separated by a forward slash.  For example, this photograph has the identifier “UBC 3.1/52”, showing that it belongs to collection UBC 3.1 (part of the Department of University Extension fonds) and is image 52 of that collection.

Our new UBC Archives Photograph Collections page lists those collections which include photographs, by collection number and title.  This allows researchers to easily limit their searches by specific collections, instead of having to compile an Open Collections “advanced search“.  For example, a researcher wanting to search for images from UBC’s Faculty of Agricultural Sciences (now Land and Food Sciences) simply clicks on collection number 24.1/.  Similarly, images acquired as part of a photo album created by UBC student Albert E. “Ab” Richards (B.A. 1923) can view them by clicking 158.1/.

Researchers can also still search the entire historical photograph database, if they wish.

Laurenda Daniells, University Archivist Emerita (1923-2017)

Laurenda Daniells, first Archivist of the University of British Columbia[Update: A Memorial will be held at the University Hill Congregation, 6050 Chancellor Blvd. (Google Maps), Sunday, January 22, 2017 at 1:00 p.m. The service will be preceded by lunch at noon and followed by a reception. Parking is available at the UBC Rose Garden parkade.]

Laurenda Daniells, first Archivist of the University of British Columbia, died peacefully at her home on Wednesday evening, 4 January 2017, surrounded by the love of her children and grandchildren.

Laurenda was born in Winnipeg in 1923.  She attended the University of Manitoba and graduated with a degree in social work in 1945. Her first job was with the protection division of the Children’s Aid Society of Winnipeg.

In May 1948 she married Roy Daniells, recently appointed as head of the English Department at the University of British Columbia, and moved with him to Vancouver. She and Roy purchased an empty lot on Allison Road in the University Hill neighbourhood, where they built one of the first homes in the progressive “West Coast Modern” style.  Together they raised two daughters (Susan and Sara), and enjoyed European and African travel adventures.  In particular, she and her family spent a year in Europe in 1959-60, during Roy’s sabbatical supported by a Canada Council grant.  Laurenda also served three terms as a school board trustee, and did a considerable amount of volunteer work.

In 1969 Laurenda returned to school and entered the one-year Library Science degree programme at UBC.  After graduating, she followed that with a six-week archival management course at the Public Archives of Canada.  In 1970 she was appointed the first University Archivist at UBC Library’s Special Collections Division.  Alone in this position for many years, Laurenda worked to bring some order to the institution’s historical records.  She organized those materials which had already accumulated in Special Collections, and arranged for the acquisition of additional  inactive administrative records from the various University departments, as well as private papers from prominent faculty, staff, and alumni.  By the time she retired in 1988 with the honorary title “University Archivist Emerita”, Laurenda had established the University Archives on firm foundations.

During her career at UBC Laurenda served for several years on the Faculty Association executive, and on the University Senate.  She also served a one-year term as president of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C.

After her retirement Laurenda continued with her volunteer work, in particular her continuing involvement with University Hill United Church.  She enjoyed writing, and in her eighties began recording her life stories with the Brock Hall Life Writers Group.  In 2016 these stories were collected in her published memoir, Royal Blood.

Roy Daniells died in 1978.  Laurenda is survived by her two daughters, and four grandchildren. Funeral arrangements to be announced.