The strength and courage of Albertans was tested during another disease outbreak in Northern Alberta more than 90 years ago.
In December 1928, a Hudson’s Bay Company employee from Little Red River, a 140-year-old settlement located 660 km northwest of Edmonton, contracted diphtheria: a bacterial infection of the nose and throat that can affect breathing, cause heart failure, paralysis, and even death.
Fort Vermilion officials were concerned that if the outbreak spread, the remote community and surrounding Indigenous groups would be in jeopardy. Therefore, a call went out for the badly needed diphtheria anti-toxin to save the community.
According to the Alberta Aviation Museum’s website, local experienced river guides, Joe LaFleur and William Lambert, struck out with a sled dog team down the Peace River to get help. With each man battling the flu, they arrived in the community of Peace River ten days later, where they were able to send a telegram to the government advising of the situation’s gravity.
Five hundred thousand units of anti-toxin were prepared and authorized by Dr. Malcolm Bow, deputy minister of health at the time.
His challenge: How would he get it delivered to the historic fur trading community during a bitterly cold January?
“Two pilots from Edmonton flew the anti-diphtheria serum up to Fort Vermilion in the middle of January in an open cockpit plane,” said Suzanna Wagner, a history Masters student, of the trip fondly referred to as “The Fort Vermilion Mercy Flight of 1929.”
“It was incredibly dangerous.”
Pilots, Vic Horner, and former flying ace, Wilfred Reid “Wop” May, who had narrowly escaped the First Word War with his life following an encounter with the infamous German “Red Baron”, Manfred Von Richthofen, battled the elements as they made their way north.
“It was -28C on the morning of January 2, 1929 when Dr. Bow handed May the package of serum which, wrapped in a blanket, was placed inside a baggage compartment next to a charcoal heater to keep it warm,” said a museum article, noting the two pilots were bundled up in heavy coats, pants, and felt boots.
After battling a fire caused by the blanket, enduring temperatures ranging from -28 to -34 C, frostbite, and exhaustion, among other issues, the pair arrived in Fort Vermilion with no heater.
“Through the heroic actions May and Horner, only one death, that of Bert Logan [the first person infected], resulted from the diphtheria outbreak. All of the other [infected] inhabitants of Fort Vermilion and Little Red River were saved,” said the aviation museum’s article.
“It highlights the difficulties in transportation and that [continue to be] an issue in rural Alberta,” said Wagner.
(Editor’s note: Excerpts were taken from the Alberta Aviation Museum’s website, which includes material from Denny May, Wop May’s son.)
— Lorena Franchuk
Did you enjoy this article?
Subscribe to the Rural Health Beat to get a positive article about rural health delivered to your inbox each week.