At McGill, Cholera’s Death Carnival

McGill. Green Line. Opened 1966.

A big welcome to all my new readers and followers since Marian Scott’s piece in the Gazette. I hope you’ll feel free to ask questions, give advice, offer corrections, and above all enjoy the posts. And with posts in mind, here’s this weeks.

In recent years fears of global pandemic have hardly been out of the news. It is only with the meeting of the clinic and the corridors of power that deaths have been kept to a minimum. As in cities from St. Petersburg to Philadelphia, this meeting only occurred in Montreal in the face of the  cholera epidemic of 1831-32. From the devastation arose the first public hospitals, refuse collections and new powers to enforce public sanitation.

In 1821, Dr. William Robertson, his protegé, Dr John Stephenson, Dr. Andrew Fernando Holmes, all educated at Edinburgh University, and Dr. Henri-Pierre Loedel, also educated in Britain, set up the Montreal Medical Institute and with it the Montreal General Hospital, with a view to professionalizing the medical community in Canada. At the same time the Royal Institute for the Advancement of Learning was struggling with other heirs of the Scottish merchant, James McGill, himself educated at Glasgow University, to establish a school on his estate at Burnside Place within a ten year deadline. As physics professor, Martin Grant writes in a post on the McGill Science Faculty’s blog, dating the origins of the University is a hard task, but we can certainly say that in 1829, the two institutes joined forces  to form the Faculty of Medicine at McGill College, issuing its first degree to William Leslie Logie four years later.

The new doctor had his work cut out. Measles, smallpox, typhoid and dysentry were all virulent killers, and this is before the mortality rate takes account of death caused by a harsh environment and the rigours of childbirth for both infant and mother. In 1831 a new challenge appeared on the horizon; cholera, incurable and its cause unknown, was devastating cities such as London, Edinburgh, and Paris. It was only a matter of time before the disease appeared on the shores of the north America, and with the arrival of the first passenger vessels in June 1832 the disease landed in Montreal in the shape of an Irish immigrant named McKee whose fearful sweats and collapsing organs attracted crowds to the wharf-side tavern where he met his end.

In many respects, Lower Canada was well prepared. With the rate of immigration expected to be seventy to eighty thousand  in 1832, and three thousand arriving in the first week of June alone, the government undertook a series of measure including the notorious quarantine centre at Grosse Ile in the St Lawrence at Quebec City. Legislation was passed creating Boards of Health. With them came the first public hospitals, street cleaning services and refuse collections, public toilets, and new housing regulations and limits on occupancy. This entailed an unprecedented involvement of the government in the lives of citizens, including orders for construction and maintenance privies of a depth of six feet, weekly scrubbing of all uncarpeted floors and weekly inspections of all dwellings by Health Wardens to ensure the new obligations had been met.

For obvious reasons, cholera was associated with migrants, many of them poor and escaping the starvation of the “Potato Famine” in Ireland. For less obvious reasons it was associated with the poverty of working poor of Montreal. It was in the poor neighbourhood which had grown up around the newly opened Lachine Canal that the cholera hospital was established, despite the offer of a seminary in the town.

The rapidly refurbished buildings were openly referred to as sheds and their gruesome conditions provoked outcry.Samuel Jackson, Charles Meigis and Richard Harlan, visiting on behalf of the City of Philadelphia found no beds, only straw with no blankets ‘where the destitute might die beneath a roof instead of the canopy of heaven’. Benjamin Workman, editor of the Canadian Courant, thundered that ‘no farmer would consider them as comfortable accommodation for his cattle, and yet to these miserable sheds are persons brought labouring under a malady which, for all the others that afflict the human frame, requires warmth, prompt attention and comfortable beds. They might properly be called dying houses’.

As well as establishing the public hospitals, the Board of Health divided the city into thirteen wards and issued a panoply of measures to control the spread of the disease. These take up nearly a full page of close print in the Gazette of 12 June 1832 and I have reproduced some of the below. Some like the measure on keeping hogs in the city fell on the poor, for whom the animals were both an additional source of income and diet. Others, like the inspections, indicate the powers given to the Board of Health and the urgency with which the disease was met.

Despite the measures, between June and September 1832 Montreal was decimated with 1,900 recorded deaths from cholera in a city of a population of twenty thousand. Many were among the poor, and the disease fell particularly hard among the male labouring population, leading to the establishment of collections to meet the needs of their widows and orphans. Still, money in the bank was neither a prevention nor a cure. Speaking in 1835 at lecture to the students at the new university, Workman recalled how despite a high death rate among the poor, ‘cholera’s death carnival was not complete and the devastations were now extended beyond the houseless and indigent’.

That carnival would be brought to a more certain end when money was turned into sewers, filtration, and chlorination. Until then, there was high probability that human feces, the real cause of the cholera, would enter the water supply and so cause an outbreak of a disease which is always present and which according to the WHO continues to affect 3 to 5 million people for the lack of clean drinking water and public sanitation.

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The Rules and Regulations of the Montreal Board of Health, The Gazette, 12 June 1832.
The Rules and Regulations of the Montreal Board of Health, The Gazette, 12 June 1832.

Chapter Second: Of Cleanliness

1. No person whomsoever shall throw or cause to be thrown any dirty water, vegetables, ashes, filth or dirt of any kind in the streets of the City, Banlieue, or Port of Montreal

2. No person shall keep any hog or hogs in any dwelling-house within the City, Banlieue, or Port of Montreal, nor in any building within twenty feet of such dwelling-house, nor in such a manner as to be offensive to the neighbourhood, or to the passengers in the Streets or Highway; and in no case shall more than two Hogs be kept on the same premises; such Hogs to be kept in a pen or stye. […]

5. All Dead Animals or Offals of Animals shall, within four hours, be removed beyond the Banlieue, and be immediately buried and covered, at least three feet beneath the surrounding surface.

6. All refuse Vegetable Substances shall be removed beyond the Banlieue, on Wednesday and Saturday in each week, in covered carts, to be furnished by the Board of Health, each cart to be provided with a large bell.

7. The Yard of every Premises in the City and Suburbs shall be swept clear of every other substance not abovementioned (excepting stable manure) on every Friday, from the first day of May to the first day of November, and the contents of the sweepings deposited in the Street, at the expense of the occupier or occupiers of such Yard in sufficient time to be removed by the Public Scavengers  And, during the winter, each Yard shall be cleaned at least once a month, and the contents or sweepings deposited on the ice, excepting Stable Manure, at a distance of not less than half a mile from the Shore, and not less than fifty yards from any Public Road. The Public Scavengers shall carry away the contents or sweepings mentioned in this Section in close covered tight vehicles, so that no part of the load shall escape.

8. The Proprietor of every Dwelling-house within the City, Banlieue, and Port of Montreal shall be bound, within one month from the Publication of these Rules and Regulations, to construct a Privy at least six feet deep, for each house so situated, within the yard or premises appertaining thereto. […]

15. Live Horned Cattle, Sheep, Lamb, Goats, Calves, Hogs, or other Animals of a marketable nature, shall be exposed for sale in the Market Place situated in the Main Street of the St Lawrence Suburb, and no where else.

Chapter Third: Of Proprietors, Tenants, Sub Tenants and Occupiers of Houses and Dwellings

1. Every Proprietor of House within the City and Banlieue, who have leased or shall hereafter lease such a House or Building or any part thereof, shall, within ten days after the publication of these Rules and Regulations, give to the Health Warden of the Ward in which such a House or Building is situated, a Statement, in writing, setting forth the names of the Proprietor and Lessee or Lessees, the number of rooms occupied by each Lessee, and the number of persons occupying each room, together with the name of the Street in which such a House or Building is situated and the number of boundaries of such a House or Building, and, on the subsequent change of Tenant or Tenants, the name shall be notified within twenty-four hours after such a change.

2. All Lessees of Houses, who hold the same directly from  the Proprietor, shall be held liable for the acts of those persons to whom they may Sub-let.

3. The Tenant or Tenants of any House or Building, holding or leasing the same directly from the Owner, shall be jointly or severally proceeded against for any filth, manure, or nuisance of any description which may be found in the Street, opposite the House or Building occupied by them, or in the Court-yard, Privies, or any such place appertaining to such House or Building, and which may be used in common by the Tenants.

4. All Occupants of Houses shall be bound to scrub or cause to be scrubbed all floors therein, not carpeted or otherwise covered, at least once every week, and the walls and ceilings in each House shall, by the Occupant or Occupants there of, be  washed or whitewashed in the spring and autumn of each year; and as much oftener as shall, in particular cases, be deemed necessary by this Board, and within forty-eight hours after notice from the Board to that effect.

5. In no case shall the number of persons lodging and sleeping in any one Tenement exceed the ratio of four persons to a Room of twelve feet square: nor shall any person or persons be allowed to lodge in any cellar or basement story of any House or Dwelling house within the City and Banlieue of Montreal, without permission from the Board of Health. […]

Chapter Sixth: Of the Health Wardens

There shall be thirteen Health Wardens, one to each Ward of the City and Banlieue, as divided by the foregoing Rules and Regulations, who shall respectively be governed by the following Orders and Directions, in the execution of their respective duties.

1. Immediately on the appointment of each Health Warden, or as soon thereafter as possible, he shall receive from the Secretary of the Board, –

Firstly, A certificate of his appointment signed by the Chairman of the Board, for the time being. A copy of these Rules and Regulations, and also such others as may be hereafter adopted. The names and places of residence of the Chairman of the Board, the Commissioners of Health, the Health Officer, the Inspector of Roads and his Deputy, the Inspector or Constable of the Beach, and the High Constable. All Rules of Police having reference to the cleanliness and the health of the City and Banlieue.

Secondly, Immediately on his appointment, he will receive a sign on which will be painted his name and the title of his office, which he shall cause to be affixed in the most conspicuous place on the outside of the house in which he resides. He will also receive a medal or other distinctive badge indicating his office, which he shall always wear in the execution of his duty.

Thirdly, He will immediately make out a list of the houses in his ward, designating the number of each, the name of the street, of the proprietors, and of the tenants or other occupants in each street, the number of apartments in each house, when the same is occupied by different individuals, and by whom each apartment, distinguishing Justices of the Peace and Constables. A copy of the list he shall furnish to the Committee of Superintendence at the Office of the Board of Health without delay.

Fourthly, He shall cause to be executed by the proper person or persons, and without partiality, the law under authority of which he acts, as well as the Rules and Regulations adopted by the Board, relating to streets and other public places, and without waiting for special directions, he shall denounce all delinquents, that they may undergo the penalties of the law, and, when the case will permit, shall support his accusation by at least one witness.

Fifthly, He shall not inspect any private property before six o’clock in the morning, nor after seven o’clock in the evenings unless he receive special order so to do.

Sixthly, When he proceeds to inspect private property he shall, in the first instance, make himself known as a Health Warden, and request admittance. He shall point out verbally, when necessary, that which is not in conformity with the Regulations of the Board, to whom he shall report accordingly. In the execution of this duty, he shall act with discretion and civility, and shall not extend his researches beyond what is strictly requisite.

Ninthly, Until further orders, he shall visit every house in his Ward or Section, once every week and report his proceedings daily to the Committee of Superintendence, at the Office of the Board of Health, between the hours of three and four o’clock P.M. His report shall be in the form prescribed by the Board, and he shall mention therein all the streets, lanes, or avenues which to him it may appear requisite to fence up or otherwise inclose.

Tweflthly, He shall, when in the performance of his duties, suspend from his neck, by a blue ribbon, the medal or badge which shall be delivered to him, and shall return the same to the Chairman of the Board, whenever he may go out of office. It is also ordered by the Board, that no person except a Health Warden shall wear this distinctive badge, and the Wardens respectively are required to report every individual who may do so without authority.

Thirteenthly, The remuneration of each Warden is fixed at the sum of five shillings per dat, from the period at which he may enter upon and fulfil the duties of his office.


By order of the Board of Health,

J. Guthrie Scott, Secretary.

Office of the Board of Health, Montreal, June 11, 1832


The Hon. C. W. Grant, Chairman

The Hon. John Molson, The Hon. P. De Rocheblave, William Robertson, M.D., Adam L. Macnider, Joseph Roy, Olivier Berthlet, John Stephenson, M. D., Henry Corse, William J. Vallée M. D., John Turney and Andrew Doyle, Esquires, The Rev, John Bethune, J. Guthrie Scott, Secretary.

The following ADDITIONAL RULES, REGULATIONS, ORDERS, and DIRECTIONS were unanimously adopted –

First, That all Passengers landed in the Port of Montreal, from Steam or other Vessels, shall within two hours after landing, remove from the Wharves.

Secondly, That one or more Public Privies shall be created as contiguous as possible to the Wharves.

By order of the Board of Health,

A separate notice succinctly details the penalties

By the 19th section of the Act 2. William IV, chap 16, it is enacted, that any person who shall violate any order or Direction made by the Board of Health, in exercise of the powers vested in them, shall, for every such offence, incur a Penalty not exceeding One Hundred Pounds, Currency, and shall be imprisoned until such Fine be paid, or for a term not exceeding six months.

By order of the Board of Health,

J. GUTHRIE SCOTT, Secretary.

Consulted for this post

Peter Waite. “Between Three Oceans: Challenges of a Continental Destiny” The Illustrated History of Canada. Ed. Craig Brown. Toronto: Key Porter, 2007. 277-376.

Walter Sendzik. The 1832 Montreal Cholera Epidemic: a study in state formation. McGill University: unpublished MA thesis, 1997.

David S. Crawford. “Montreal, Medicine and William Leslie Logie: McGill’s first graduate and Canada’s first medical graduate”. The Osler Library Newsletter, 108 (2008): 1-7.

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