Parents and helpers visiting the boys of the Vernon Preparatory School quarantined in a “Tent City” during the 1927 polio epidemic. (Greater Vernon Museum and Archives photo)

Museum offers a brief history of pandemics in the Okanagan

Greater Vernon Museum exhibit offers historical view of past outbreaks that affected the local area

In a year dominated by COVID-19, the Greater Vernon Museum and Archives is offering some historical perspective of the pandemics, epidemics and outbreaks that have made their mark on the North Okanagan.

The museum is re-opening by appointment Oct. 6 with a new featured exhibit, Pandemic, which will allow guests to traverse back in time to experience the historical outbreaks that were felt in the local area, many of which offer parallels to the present day.

As museum staff explain, that history begins in the nineteenth century when smallpox was carried from overseas, with particularly devastating consequences to B.C.’s Indigenous population. The Syilx People of the Okanagan weathered the storm of three outbreaks, and it is estimated smallpox killed up to 60 per cent of the province’s Indigenous people.

Past outbreaks of typhoid fever, the 1918 flu, polio, diphtheria and H1N1 also affected North Okanagan residents.

“With each outbreak, there was a public health response, including different versions of isolation, quarantine, and vaccination,” said Gwyneth Evans, the museum’s community engagement coordinator. “For example, this area’s response to the 1918 flu pandemic will seem eerily familiar to what we’re going through now.”

READ MORE: B.C.’s top doctor thanks supporters after revealing threats over COVID-19 measures

The 1918 pandemic led to an estimated 20 to 50 million deaths worldwide. In October of that year, with nine confirmed cases in Vernon, the district responded by closing schools, theatres, and churches while banning public gatherings. People were encouraged to stay at home, keep their distance from others and isolate if showing any symptoms.

By November 1918 the number of cases had increased to 225 with five deaths. But as the months went on the rate of new cases began to decrease, and the public ban on gatherings was lifted.

Similar precautions were taken again in 1927 after two boys at the Vernon Preparatory School showed symptoms of polio. All of the boys were quarantined in a Coldstream ravine near the school. Tents were pitched 50 feet apart and 22 latrines were constructed — one for every two boys. The boys were sent home after the quarantine time of 21 days had passed.

“At the museum, we think it’s important to look back at local history, not only to connect us with past experiences, but to better understand our shared present,” Evans said.

As the world continues to contend with its current pandemic, the museum’s re-opening comes with substantial changes made in keeping with public health guidelines.

“There will be some display cases and gallery areas that are still ‘in progress,’” explained Laisha Rosnau, the museum’s program coordinator. “Like much of the world, we are in the process of reimagining how different aspects of our work can be done, and how we can connect with the public in new and different ways.”

The museum will be open by appointment to individuals and small groups beginning Oct. 6. The archives will also be open by appointment each afternoon, Monday through Friday. To book a visit, head to

READ MORE: Vernon ‘schools are healthy’: IH medical health officer

Brendan Shykora
Reporter, Vernon Morning Star
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