The 1885 Montreal Smallpox Epidemic | The Canadian Encyclopedia


The 1885 Montreal Smallpox Epidemic

The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.

In 1885, smallpox gripped the city of Montreal.
Un fléau frappe Montréal

The disease rode the rails from Chicago. In late February 1885, a conductor on the Grand Trunk Railway, George Longley, arrived at Bonaventure Station feverish and covered with fiery eruptions on his hands, face, chest and arms. He was admitted to the Hôtel-Dieu in Montreal. Longley survived, but his bedding infected Pélagie Robichaud, an Acadian girl who worked in the laundry. She died on April 1, followed soon by her sister Marie.

By mid-April it was clear that smallpox was loose in the hospital and could not be contained. The city's board of health then made a catastrophic error. They discharged all patients who did not appear sick. Many were in the stage of incubation, however, and they set the virus loose in the streets of Montreal.

Smallpox is one of the most contagious and loathsome diseases ever to menace humanity. But the real tragedy of the smallpox epidemic in Montreal was that it was preventable. The practice of vaccination, developed by Edward Jenner in England in 1796, was widespread by that time. In Britain, smallpox vaccination became mandatory in the mid-19th century.

Some, however, were suspicious of vaccination. This included many French Canadians, who associated it with British surgeons. Many of them lived in shabby, filthy, overcrowded tenements in the poorest quarters of the city. They were swayed by the rhetoric of the anti-vaccination campaign and homeopathic advocates, who called the vaccinators "charlatans," who were trying to carry out "l'empoisonment de nos enfants."

Meanwhile, Montreal was gaining the reputation of a city of plague, to be avoided at all costs. It was now high summer in the city and people with smallpox in their dwellings were seen on the streets along with their children, whose scabs were still contagious. By July, the disease had spread to St-Henri and Vaudreuil. Every night more bodies were hauled up to Côte des Neiges cemetery in hearses marked "SMALLPOX-PICOTTE."

Even the eminent victims were dispatched quickly. When Sir Francis Hincks, a former prime minister of the Province of Canada, died of the disease, his body was hastily buried in the early morning with only a few family members present.

Attempts by public health officials to enforce vaccination or isolation or even to carry away the dead met with resistance and even rioting. Sanitation constables were assaulted as they removed bodies from the worst-infected neighborhoods. On September 28, the bells of Notre Dame rang out, calling police from all over the city to disperse an unruly mob that stalked the streets hurling stones.

By the end of the year, smallpox had exhausted the supply of unvaccinated hosts and case numbers declined. The disease had taken nearly 6,000 lives in Quebec, including more than 3,000 in Montreal, and had disfigured another 13,000. Nine of ten victims were French Canadians, most of them children.

Thanks to advances in medicine and public health, the smallpox epidemic of Montreal was the last uncontained eruption of the disease in a modern city. In 1979, the World Health Organization announced the global eradication of the disease, though samples of the variola virus are kept in government laboratories in the United States and Russia.