By Hannah Green
Boston University News Service
It was late 1918, and influenza was riding the waves of soldiers returning from war and crashing into port cities. Boston’s first civilian influenza patient checked in to Boston City Hospital on September 3. The daily death toll went from 9 to 74 Bostonians by mid-September. Visitors were barred from hospitals, schools were closed and ships were held in port to quarantine.
Massachusetts Governor Samuel W. McCall watched nurses and doctors struggle to care for the multiplying patient population. They needed help, and McCall knew who he could turn to — a city of survivors that Boston had helped through its own crisis less than a year ago.
Pilot Francis Mackey watched Dec. 6, 1917, dawn from aboard the Mont-Blanc steamship. The First World War was in full swing, and the Mont-Blanc was making a stop in Halifax, the capital of the province of Nova Scotia, en route to the European war front. She was loaded with explosive weapons of war, Mackey recalled, including TNT, picric acid, gun cotton and barrels of benzol.
The Mont-Blanc proceeded through the narrowest stretch of the harbor channel toward the port, Mackey said. It was a clear morning, and the water was smooth. On his starboard side, Mackey could see over the streets of a neighboring city, Dartmouth, as it woke up. To his left was Halifax, and a large hill that blocked the rest of the channel from view. The first sign of trouble was a few masts poking up from behind that approaching hill.
A ship called the Imo, a relief ship headed to New York for supplies, rounded the corner and mistakenly headed toward the Mont-Blanc. The channel wasn’t wide enough to turn. Mackey braced for impact.
“She cut through us like a piece of cheese,” Mackey later said. Right away a cloud of smoke and flames rose from the deep gash. The Mont-Blanc crew had time to board lifeboats and reach Dartmouth as the Mont-Blanc’s hull drifted toward Halifax.
A half-mile away on Halifax’s Merkel Street, 12-year-old Agnes Foran and her mother saw flames rising over the buildings near the waterfront. The slight girl with fair hair and blue eyes was late for school, but her mother insisted she stay home until they knew the source of the fire. Foran would later describe what happened next as the sky itself opening.
From his refuge on the channel, Mackey could see what the rest of the world would later learn: The Mont-Blanc had exploded, leaving it disintegrated beyond recognition.
The explosion threw Foran onto the floor and shattered the windows. She recalled her mother being blinded by the blast and taken to Victoria General Hospital, while she herself received treatment for a shard of glass lodged in her stomach. Nearly 2,000 people were killed by the explosion and at least 9,000 were injured, according to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Halifax immediately put out a call for help down the Eastern Seaboard.
News of the explosion reached Boston in a morning telegram. The city’s medical community immediately responded. Two dozen physicians and nurses raced to Halifax on a train with supplies, newspapers reported. After treating patients for much of December, the group returned and formed the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee. They raised $500,000 to refurnish 1,800 homes and sent $25,000 to care for people blinded by the explosion, according to research by the State Library of Massachusetts.
The Boston medical team worked alongside Halifax’s local health care workers, like nursing student Ethel Redmond, according to research by Gloria Stephens, manager of the Victoria General Hospital (VGH) School of Nursing Archives.
“Anybody that had any medical experience, they were looking after people right on the street,” Stephens said. “[Redmond] did say that when it was all over, she’d had nightmares about what she’d seen — the atrocities. It was like a war zone.”
Redmond had deep-set, dark eyes, a tight-lipped smile and brown hair that was smoothed down beneath her white nurse’s cap. Despite the trauma of 1917, she was among at least 32 nurses who responded to Boston’s call for help a year later.
“If you were a nurse and you were home, you just grabbed your medical bag and off you went to see where you could help,” Stephens said. “Once word got out, doctors and nurses flooded to the hospital to see what they could do.”
Nurses arrived in Boston throughout the fall and moved between areas of Massachusetts where the need was greatest. Redmond spent 10 days at Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport before moving to Amesbury. The local hospitals were filled, so Redmond treated the overflow of patients in the town hall. Redmond served here for 10 more days before returning to Nova Scotia to continue caring for influenza patients.
When the first nurses left for Boston on September 30, a Halifax paper reported only one known influenza case in the city. By October 28, the city had recorded at least 1,000 cases that month. Yet the death toll per 1,000 people in Halifax was half that of Massachusetts, according to an analysis by the Nova Scotia Museum. The museum credited this low fatality rate to medical professionals who brought back experience caring for influenza patients in Boston.
Not all nurses were lucky enough to return. Twelve women from Halifax died from the influenza in Massachusetts, including sisters Georgina and Winnifred Flemming, according to an exhibit at the Museum of Nova Scotia. The pair died on the same day in October.
When Gov. McCall visited Nova Scotia in November 1918, the Halifax city clerk thanked Massachusetts for its support in 1917, saying the funds and medical team saved countless lives.
“It is some small satisfaction to us that recently, that when trouble has come to your people, through the epidemic of Influenza, we have been able to afford you some slight measure of assistance,” the clerk said.
In December 1918, Boston received a Christmas tree from Nova Scotia to thank the city for its help after the Halifax explosion. The gift was revived as an annual tradition and a well-known celebration in 1971, and the tree is still lit every year in a ceremony on Boston Common. But by Stephens’ reckoning, the great balsam fir trees should not be regarded as the most important link between these events of the past and the present.
“It’s a terrific parallel to what’s happening now with COVID. Doctors and nurses are stretching right out to the limit. They’re putting their own lives at state,” Stephens said. “Instead of running away from the problem and saying, ‘I’m not going to get involved in this,’ they jump right in to help.”