Montreal in the time of smallpox

It is fascinating to note how we sometimes fail to understand certain lessons of history when it comes to COVID. The smallpox epidemic, which struck down Montreal in 1885, is nevertheless rich in lessons.

The disease arrives from the United States during the winter and gradually gains momentum in the spring.

The health authorities then make the mistake of sending home hospitalized patients who do not look too badly off.

Smallpox then spread like wildfire. The victims are stricken with fever, convulsions, vomiting and delirium.

Horrible red pustules appear all over the body, especially on the hands and face. Those who survive often remain disfigured.

The Canadian metropolis could have avoided this disaster. A smallpox vaccine was developed a century ago in Britain. Like this, Canada has made it mandatory.

Anti-vaccine movement

As today, there was then, unfortunately, an influential anti-vaccine movement, very strong among French Canadians. They are poorly educated, poor and live in unsanitary conditions.

We are at the time of the hanging of Louis Riel and everything that comes from the English, such as vaccines, is viewed with hostility.

Agitators in search of attention, doctors moreover, benefit from it to recruit the French-speaking mass.

Their disinformation is reminiscent of our current conspirators.

They denounce provaccine “charlatans”, who seek, nothing less, to poison children by practicing “witchcraft”.

Do not close the churches

Added to this is the fact that the Catholic Church opposes, at least initially, vaccination and containment measures.

Churches should not be closed or religious processions prevented, even if all this favors the spread of the disease.

This attitude makes the English jump. They accuse the French of plunging the city into a health and economic crisis, since Montreal is de facto in quarantine; the other regions of Quebec and Canada, or even the Americans, not wanting any contact with the metropolis.

Mayor Beaugrand intervenes

In the midst of this disaster, Mayor Honoré Beaugrand reveals himself as a statesman.

This polyglot entrepreneur, married to an American, was elected largely thanks to the support of Anglophones.

Beaugrand is a rouge and his anticlericalism earns him the hostility of the Church. All this does little to convince his blood brothers to accept the vaccination.

In 1885, Montreal mayor Honoré Beaugrand had to deal with a riot caused by anti-vaccine protesters.

Photo courtesy, BANQ

In 1885, Montreal mayor Honoré Beaugrand had to deal with a riot caused by anti-vaccine protesters.

In September 1885, a riot broke out, he had the militia deployed around the town hall and gave the order to fire on the rioters, if necessary.

The latter smash in particular pharmacies with stones. The mayor ends up all the same by restoring calm.

Little by little, the opposition ends up running out of steam and vaccination progresses.

At the end of 1885, the epidemic disappeared, not without killing 5,864 people in Quebec, including 3,224 in Montreal.

Ninety percent of the victims are French Canadians and, of this number, 85% are children.

Today, smallpox has been completely eradicated. It’s up to us to do the same with COVID.

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Montreal in the time of smallpox

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