Few things shake up the way we live like a global pandemic. 

It’s been a tumultuous year, but COVID-19 is far from the first pandemic on record in humanity’s history. What can we learn from the past? What can the past tell us about our future? 

Poster for Heritage Fair. Collage of images of doctors, past pandemics, and people in masks with the words "Culture Shock! The Impact of Pandemics"
Pivoting from an in-person event to an online panel, Heritage Fair 20201’s Culture Shock! The Impact of Pandemics will dive into a topic very relevant to our current lives — the cultural impact of pandemics. Image courtesy of the London Heritage Council.

These are some of the questions the London Heritage Council is looking to answer in the panel Culture Shock! The Impact of Pandemics. The online panel is a virtual reimagining of the London Heritage Fair, which is typically the kick-off to Ontario Heritage Week.

“In the past, our themes have always centred around a topic of interest that London or the community has for that year. And, of course, this year the pandemic is obviously on everybody’s mind,” said Dhira Ghosh, Operations Manager for the London Heritage Council. “It was a natural fit for us to do something about past pandemics because we all can take lessons from what has happened in the past. And this was an opportunity for us to learn as we struggle through this pandemic.”

A Public Influenza Notice from the London Board of Health published in the London Advertiser in January 1920. Image courtesy of Canadiana by CRKN.

The panel organized by the Heritage Council, with support from the City of London’s Culture Office, will feature a broad array of voices across different niches of expertise.

Some of the panelists spoke to LondonFuse to preview what they will discuss at the event.

The Scientific Similarities

One of the panelists is Dr. Vivian McAlister, a surgeon at University Hospital London and professor at Western University. Dr. McAlister is the Director of the Office of Military Academic Medicine at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

A doctor stands in a hospital hallway in scrubs wth his arms crossed. heritage fair
Dr. McAlister was recently named an Officer of the Order of Canada, one of Canada’s highest civilian honours, for his “seminal contributions to and leadership in the military and civilian surgical communities, as a medical practitioner, researcher and educator.” Photo courtesy of Canadian Medical Association.

Dr. McAlister’s focus is on the medical history and innovation that surrounded the 1918 pandemic. “You might think that Canada was preoccupied by war and so relieved by its end that there was a collective decision to forget about everything in the preceding years. Yet when I investigated it for the upcoming Museum event, I found the story to be more complicated,” he said.


Dr. McAlister shared an issue of The Canadian Journal of Medicine and Surgery that captured an Ontario Medical Association symposium that was held in May 1919. “You will see that the doctors at the time were interested and very knowledgeable – in fact I could change only a few words and you might think they were discussing COVID-19,” he said. 

Three men in work clothes wearing masks in a field. Heritage fair
Three men wear masks to protect themselves and others during the Spanish Influenza epidemic, 1918. Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

“You will also see that the OMA put great hope in the establishment of a federal department of health with responsibility for public health (communicable diseases). Most historians and modern doctors would say that the aspirations of the doctors in 1918 has not been met yet, 100 years later,” he added. Hopefully, as we reassess our systems going into the future, that original vision can come to pass.

The London Response

Local historian Hilary Bates Neary is another one of the panelists, and she had some interesting facts to share about the London response to the 1918 pandemic. Some responses regarding battling the virus were eerily similar to the false COVID-19 cures floating around today.

“London’s newspapers were full of many strange prophylactic measures for avoiding the flu,” Hilary shared. “one was an inhaling device, and another was “Dominion C.B.Q. – Cascara, Bromide and Quinine Tablets in the red box.” 

A collage of headlines from London, Ontario. Topics to be discussed at heritage fair.
A collage of headlines from the London Free Press in October 1918 shows the Spanish flu’s widespread impact throughout the city. Image courtesy of Vintage, London (Facebook).

“The public were also encouraged to purchase bicycles in the theory that fresh air helped boost health: this of course came from a bicycle shop,” she added.

Hilary finds hope in the community response to the 1918 pandemic that echoes through to today. “Many London citizens donated food, clothing, bedding and their time to help families suffering in 1918.” Hilary noted. “Women’s groups mobilized to offer homecare and to establish nursing spaces.” 

Children in a classroom stand next to their desks and practice sneezing properly. Heritage Fair.
Children at Victoria Park Forest School in Toronto practice blowing their noses in 1913. Photo courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

There are certainly many examples of people and organizations coming together to bolster the community in the current crisis.

The Culture Cravings

David Marskell is the CEO of Kitchener museum THEMUSEUM. The Arts and Culture expert on the panel shared some thoughts about what the future following the COVID-19 pandemic could hold for those sectors.

a boy with a face mask stands in front of a theatre with a sign that says all theatres cloesd until further notice at request of mayor
A masked boy stands outside Toronto’s closed Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1918. Photo courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

“It is all about hope,” says David. “After 1918/19 came the roaring 20’s, and I believe with all my heart we will all roar back to interact, engage and live again!” 

Truly, communities across London and around the world are craving arts such as live music, theatre, and gallery shows. However, what’s missing is not only the events themselves, but the possibility to gather and exchange ideas in these cultural spaces.

Twnety people sit outside in a row in lawn chairs in front of a medical building. doctors and nurses stand behind them.
The Queen Alexandra Sanatorium, a facility for treating people suffering from tuberculosis, opened its doors on April 5, 1910. It was built on a high bluff overlooking the Thames River, in an area that was, at that time, outside the city of London. Photo courtesy of the London Public Library.

“To knit our communities back together we need gathering places, smart places, challenging places to spark chat and dialogue,” David said.

Submit Your Questions

These three experts are just a selection of the panelists you will hear from during the online event. Join Dr. Vivian McAlister, Hilary Bates Neary, David Marskell along with Dr. Anisha Datta, Dr. Shelley McKellar, and Dr. Jonathan F. Vance for an evening of perusing pandemics from all angles. 

“We’ve got a fairly wide cross-section of panelists who are talking on different aspects of pandemics. We hope people will learn how to navigate the future as they hear the answers to questions about the past,” Dhira said. 

A black and white image of a plague doctor from 17th century.
A copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel [i.e Dr. Beak], a plague doctor in seventeenth-century Rome. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
“Many of us don’t know who to ask or think it’s maybe not important enough to ask someone, but with the panel, these are different aspects of the pandemic that we have handled in the past and can learn from for the future.” Attendees can submit their questions for consideration to the panel prior to the online event. 

RSVP here to attend the free virtual panel Culture Shock! The Impact of Pandemics on Thursday, February 11th at 7:00pm.

This post has been powered by the London Heritage Council. The London Heritage Council gives a voice to London’s past, promoting heritage projects and advocating for London, Ontario’s cultural sector.

Feature image courtesy of the London Heritage Council.



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