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Living history

opinion editorial stock

WESTLOCK – History is the study of the past, that’s true. It’s also incomplete. What historians do is study change over time.

In next week’s edition, we’ll publish the first part of a series where I try, with the help of some very kind people in our area and some far away, to discover what healthcare looked like in this region at some very key moments in our history.

Beginning with the 1918 influenza pandemic, I’m going to trace, through documents left by people from here in corroboration with what historians have to say, what sorts of traces diseases have left in our communities.

Healthcare is an obvious place to start. There’s definitely more to the story than just ramifications of pandemics on health providers. We know that if we look around now: businesses are shutting down, schools are closed.

But Dr. Erika Dyck, historian at the University of Saskatchewan, pointed this out about why specific references in primary sources might be few or not exactly fleshed out.

“Even looking at memoirs and looking at different letters, (the influenza) does come up but it doesn’t have that galvanizing effect that we imagine it would. It may be partly that in that moment, there isn’t the capacity to pull an archive together. Where do people write to? I’m not sure where they would register that kind of sensation or that kind of idea.”

The fantasy – and also the fallacy – is that people learn and governments act. How that happens, or if it does, is more evident retrospectively than in the moment. It’s the same for healthcare.

What that essential service looked like in the past, how it changed and why is not as instinctive as we might think.

We might assume that this pandemic we’re currently going through will undoubtedly have immediate effects on how we operate in the future. It’s the work of historians 100 years from now to discern that. In the meantime, we can see what happened to healthcare 100 years ago, at a different moment of crisis.

In the meantime, let’s hope curiosity won’t kill the cat.

Documents were obtained remotely with the help of Wendy Hodgson-Sadgrove at the Westlock Municipal Library, Margaret Anderson at the Athabasca Archives, and Natalia Pietrzykowki at the Alberta Provincial Archives. Many thanks to Dr. Erika Dyck, Letitia Johnson, Dr. Heather Green and Emily Kaliel for background.

Andreea Resmerita,
Follow me on Twitter @andreea_res