The 1918 Influenza Pandemic
In 1918, the First World War was ending, and soldiers were returning home to their families. However, they also brought with them a deadly influenza virus that would eventually claim 50 million lives around the world, many of them young.
Between 1918 and 1919, over 500 million people were infected with the virus known then as the Spanish flu, due to Spain being the first country to publicize the pandemic. Today, we know the strain as H5N1 influenza. Like the SARS-COV 2 virus that causes COVID-19, H5N1 was a new zoonotic virus, to which humans had no natural immunity.
No vaccines or medications were available to help stop the devastation, and so just like today, scientists went to work on the problem. Unfortunately, the prevalent theory at the time was that influenza was a bacterial infection.
Effective vaccines were not developed until the 1930s, when the virus was isolated.
Regardless, the global influenza crisis pushed forward these early attempts to develop vaccinations based on the information available. In the fall of 1918, the New York City Department of Health shared the formula for one such experimental vaccine with Connaught Antitoxin Laboratories in Toronto.
Connaught Antitoxin Laboratories tested the vaccine for safety, then worked around the clock to make and distribute it across Canada, Great Britain, and some U.S. states for widespread testing.
Though the vaccine ultimately proved ineffective, it did not cause harm. The lab’s efforts were appreciated and helped its international reputation. Ingenium has one of the last remaining vials of this vaccine in its collection.
The 1918 influenza pandemic highlighted the need for coordinated public health efforts in Canada. In response, the federal government created the Department of Health in 1919.
By the 1940s, more vaccines were available. Canadian public health departments and lobbies expanded operations, promoting children’s vaccinations through newspaper and magazine ads, before movies, on the radio, and though television commercials.
Poliomyelitis, commonly shortened to polio, is a viral disease that can infect the spinal cord. Severe cases can result in disability, paralysis, or death. Polio outbreaks in Canada were recorded starting in the early 1910s, infecting mainly children every summer and fall.
Vaccination campaigns largely eradicated the disease in Canada by the 1970s.
One of the most recognizable technologies used to treat the effects of polio is the machine nicknamed “the iron lung.” Polio can paralyze a patient’s respiratory muscles, making it impossible to breath. The iron lung is a negative pressure ventilator that takes over the functioning of these muscles. It first came to Canada in 1930.
In 1951, Dr. Jonas Salk of the University of Pittsburgh developed the first polio vaccine, and initial small-scale trials began in the United States. Salk’s work was aided by innovations in growth mediums developed at Connaught Medical Research Laboratories. Between 1954 and 1955, the two labs collaborated to bring large-scale trails to both countries.
Famous Canadian Elsie MacGill was a polio survivor, contracting the disease in May of 1929. That same year, she became the first woman to earn a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering.
Though doctors told her she may never walk again, she worked hard to regain the use of her legs and eventually walked using canes. MacGill went on to achieve many more “firsts,” including being the first Canadian female practising engineer and aircraft designer.
In 1951, Connaught Medical Research Laboratories pioneered a new cultivation medium for virus growth in labs known as “Medium 199.” This important step allowed Dr. Jonas Salk of the University of Pittsburgh to develop the polio vaccine, using inactivated polio virus cells.
Dr. Leone Farrell of Connaught Medical Research Laboratories developed what came to be known as the “Toronto Method” of growing the polio virus needed for mass vaccine production, involving “Medium 199” and special incubation bottles.
The first polio vaccine field trials in North America were conducted in 1954, using the live virus produced at Connaught Medical Research Laboratories. These fluids were shipped from Canada to both Eli Lilly in Indianapolis and Parke David in Detroit, where the virus was inactivated and prepared for trials.
The vaccine proved effective. Despite challenges involving improperly prepared vaccine in the U.S. leading to polio outbreaks, the vaccine was approved for Canadian trials in 1955.
Connaught Medical Research Laboratories produced a stable supply for the Canadian market, and in 1957, began exporting the vaccine to 44 countries around the world.
Connaught Medical Research Laboratories was sold to the Canada Development Corporation in 1972, and eventually privatized and purchased by Institut Mérieux in 1989. Today, it is the Connaught Campus of Sanofi Pasteur, due to various mergers.
From its beginnings in a small stable in Toronto, through two World Wars, global epidemics, and a constantly evolving public health landscape, Connaught has been the driving force of research and vaccine production in Canada since 1914.
This work continues at the Connaught Campus, with a focus on bacterial vaccines such as diphtheria toxoid and pertussis vaccine. In addition, new facilities are under construction to expand influenza vaccine production.
Click here to go to Part 1: Smallpox – Diphtheria – Tetanus.
Ingenium would like to thank Dr. Christopher Rutty for his consultation on this project, and for work on the history of vaccination and disease in Canada.
For more resources, please consult:
History of Connaught Laboratories
A series of articles by Dr. Christopher Rutty on the history of Connaught Laboratories and Public Health in Canada
Vaccines and Immunization: Epidemics, Prevention and Canadian Innovation
Online Exhibit by Dr. Christopher Rutty for the Museum of Health Care.
The Spanish Flu and Canadian Influenza Vaccine Initiatives
By Dr. Christopher Rutty
History of Connaught
Part of the Insulin100: The Discover of Insulin project for Defining Moments Canada (Dr. Christopher Rutty).
Sanofi Pasteur: The Legacy Project
Timeline of vaccination research and development at the Connaught Lab, 1914 to the present (Dr. Christopher Rutty).