The Mercy Flight

After the First World War, aviation hero Wilfred “Wop” May became well known as a brave and reliable bush pilot. One of his most notable ventures was the “Mercy Flight.” In January 1929, Fort Vermillion suffered a rampant outbreak of diphtheria. May and another pilot, Vic Horner, set out in an open-cockpit plane, despite the temperature being -33°C. The duo traveled 600 miles in two days to deliver the much-needed serum.

As Europeans settled western Canada in the late 1800s, they were met with countless challenges, not the least of which were staying healthy and getting medical treatment. Few communities had doctors, and treatments for major illnesses were often ineffective. After 1863 St. Albert received medical care from the Grey Nuns. By the 1880s the town also had a doctor to help combat diseases like measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever, typhoid fever and diphtheria, which all made appearances in the community prior to the First World War.

One of the epidemics that hit St. Albert was diphtheria, which spreads from person to person through airborne respiratory particles. The bacterial infection produces a toxin that coats the throat and airways, as well as damaging the heart and other organs. In 1885 a number of children in and around St. Albert were infected. 

Being passed through close contact, diphtheria often effected entire families. Alfred and Adele Arcand lost their three youngest children. Leon and Christine Harnois (Father Lacombe’s sister), lost all of their five children in a single week. All five, aged one to eight, were buried on the same day. Despite this horrific tragedy, the couple did have three more sons.

In the 1890s a diphtheria antitoxin was developed in Germany, which helped to save lives but did not prevent the disease. It was not until 1923 that Gaston Ramon created a vaccine in France. When St. Albert became a town in 1905, council appointed a medical health officer and created a board of health to help combat infectious diseases.

Christine and Leon Harnois and sons