Sickness, Disease, and Death

Throughout McDonald’s diary, there are extremely short mentions of a number of contagious infections alongside influenza, and more familiar health conditions such as appendicitis. Only once does she openly connect fear and anxiety to the manifestation of sickness in herself and loved ones. Apart from that, we are left to intuit her worry ourselves. A section from her profile from the University of Guelph's Rural Diary Archives supports our assumption of her familiarity with death and disease: one of her six children had suffered “brain damage from a bout of red measles.” As a lower-class farmwife in a countryside with harsh winters, McDonald was consistently surrounded by pathogenic threats against human existence, which then escalated with the Great Influenza. Tolerating it was essentially a way of life.

A second telling aspect here is the evolution of medical terminology. The language in which she addresses or recognizes certain illnesses can help indicate their etymological roots and localized geographical usages.

January 19, 1917

January 19, 1917

Transcription: Nothing going on but storm all the time. We are all sick with Grippe. Mary & Dan went to mass for Maggie

This passage from the earliest stages of the McDonald diary comments on the regional weather patterns along with her family’s predicament. “Grippe,” as she capitalizes, was a common term for the Great Influenza in the Anglosphere, though it allegedly has French origins and was born from the Seven Years’ War influenza epidemic.

May 30, 1917

May 30, 1917

Transcription: Papa & D A. went to town I clean ceiling of Kitchen have a letter from poor Mae who is sick with measles girls go to town. Etta wins candy.

Measles were an extremely common illness, which is likely why Mary only makes quick mention of her friend Mae being sick. The tone of this entry shows that dealing with illness was an ordinary occurrence for people in rural areas. At this point in time, a vaccine had not yet been developed for measles, so many of those that were infected experienced severe lasting health issues or sadly passed away.


March 13, 1918

March 13, 1918

Transcription: Had a letter from Mae. Bessie had one too. Papa sick Wm goes to MonKland meets Bennie who goes away being sick for 11 days with quinsy

The illness quinsy, a common name for inflammation of the throat, is the focus of this passage.  Discussions of illness pervade the diary entries, but elsewhere in our corpus, the focus was mostly on the individual local community members affected instead of on the symptoms, origins, or case counts of the disease. We can see a contrast here to modern COVID-19 coverage and discourse, where symptoms and case counts are discussed in detail, potentially at the expense of considering the individuals affected.

Mary Josephine McDonald Diary Entry, 21/03/1919

March 21, 1919

Transcription: Mamma died on saturday was buried on Sunday   Papa died on Sunday night at 11 O"clock

This entry marks the first time the ownership of the book changed hands. Mary and her husband passed away from complications surrounding infection from the Great Influenza, and Mary’s daughter Bessie took over her mother’s diary. This entry emphasizes that the diary was never seen as a purely personal book to Mary, but rather as a place for records and bookkeeping for the entire family. This was the last full entry in the diary. 

Note the typed sentence/advertisement at the top of some of these diary pages! McDonald sometimes interacted with the sentences at the top of diary pages (which gave lifestyle tips, advertised products), but mostly ignored them, as she does in these entries.
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