To the XVIIe and XVIIIe centuries, the small-pox, or smallpox, also known by the term chicken pox, is one of the scourges the most dreaded and the most deadly in Canada.
If we make abstraction of the epidemics that decimated the indigenous population during the early period of contact, the smallpox epidemic of the winter of 1702-1703 is, without a doubt, for populations of european descent, the deadliest in canadian history.
Half of the total population would have been affected and about 10% of the population die in six months.
It is as if, on the current territory of Quebec, 800,000 people died in just a few months!
1. A contagious disease
Man suffering from smallpox, 1965. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Atlanta, Georgia, United States), Public Health Image Library (PHIL), image 10393.
The variola virus begins with an incubation period of approximately 10 to 14 days – usually 12 – followed by symptoms similar to the flu (headache, backache, fever). Follows 2 to 5 days later a rash of redness followed by pimples with pus. This third period lasts 3 to 4 weeks.
Smallpox is two times more contagious than the seasonal flu or the COVID-19, but two times less than measles. It is a virus that is transmitted primarily through the respiratory tract, but also by the pustules, and the scabs or infected objects.
The sequelae can be significant : blindness, problems of deformation of the bone, and especially a risk of 25% to 30% do not survive the malignant form of the disease. If he escapes, the patient is immunized forever against any new attack of the virus and has markings more or less pronounced, especially in the face. At the time, this makes servants and slaves bearing such trademarks searched for, since they are not likely to contaminate their master and his family. It is estimated that in Europe, in the Eighteenth century, 80 to 90% of people have had the pox at one time or another in their lives.
2. Canada : A fertile ground for the epidemic
View of Quebec in 1709. Extract a copy of a Government Map of Quebec was lifted in the year 1709 by the orders of Monseigneur The Comte de Ponchartrain Commander of the Orders of the king, Minister and Secretary destat by the Sr Catalonia Lieutenent of the Troops and compiled by Jean Bte Decouagne, 1709. The BAnQ Quebec city (P600,S4,SS2,D192).
When the smallpox epidemic hit the New-France in 1702-1703, the population is mainly born in the colony and has never been affected by this disease. Similarly, many of the French strain have never had. The Aboriginal people either. Iceland has experienced a similar situation at the same time. When there is a smallpox epidemic in 1707-1709, mortality reaches 26% of the total population. On this island, the last outbreak dated back to 1670-1672.
3. Medicine is powerless
Young boy in Bangladesh suffering from smallpox, 1974. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Atlanta, Georgia, United States), Public Health Image Library (PHIL), image 10660.
As for the disease-associated coronavirus (COVID-19), there is no treatment, as it is a viral infection. It would have been possible to prevent the severe form of the disease by the inoculation of the population. This procedure consists of giving the disease by incision and placed in contact with the material variola. It allows to confer a mild form of the disease and lifelong immunity.
However, the inoculated were contagious, and can lead to the appearance of a devastating epidemic. The risk of deaths among the inoculated is approximately 2.5%, which is not negligible. Unfortunately, the use of the inoculation will occur gradually, starting in the 1720s in New England and in the decade of 1760 in Canada. Failing to receive effective treatment, patients must be able to count on the attention and care of those around them and kind souls.
The Hotel-Dieu of Quebec, which has only 40 beds, admits, in January 1703, 134 patients, 5 to 6 times more than during the months of January, 1702, and 1704. It is insufficient to the magnitude of the epidemic.
4. A contagion coming from the outside
The disease was introduced to Canada by a Native american came to Orange (Albany, New York) in the fall of 1702. At this time, the smallpox affected the State of New York and New England. In Boston only, it would have been 300 deaths. Diseases know no borders. Another outbreak, which will occur in 1732-1733, will also be introduced by a Native american from the English colonies.
5. The horrors of the epidemic in Quebec, according to two witnesses
View of Quebec, circa 1708-1709. Map extract very specific of the River of saint Laurent with its Surroundings located in north America, beginning at the Isles of Richelieu, and ending at the cape of geese. British Library, Cartographic Items Maps K. Top.119.22.
A compilation of deaths recorded in Québec reveals that 286 people out of a population of just over 2000 people die in the space of six months. That is to say, the blaze. But how to describe the horrors of a deadly epidemic and the fear engendered otherwise than by way of statistics? Leave the words to contemporary witnesses.
In the words of a nun of the Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec: “there was not a house untouched in the city. Those who conservoient their health suffisoient not to relieve the sick. Whole families are trouvoient to suffer this evil, and the little care that they recevoient, joint infection, and the malignancy of this fever, the insisted on die hard promptly. […] The mortality was so great, that the priests could not suffice to bury the dead and attend to the dying, we portoit each day the body in the church of the Lower Town, or in the cathedral, without any ceremony, and in the evening we inhumoit together for some time until the number of fifteen, sixteen and eighteen. This lasted for several months … was Never so seen mourning. Each pleuroit his relatives; one his wife, another mary, celuy cy his brother, celuy the his children, the orphans pleuroient their father and their mother; everyone was in tears, and during the winter, we did assemblies for the funeral. Those who were not attack of this evil fuyoient the houses or he had of the sick, but in spite of their precautions, they were caught, in their turn, and mouroient as the most expose.” How not to be sensitive to such remarks?
Ex-voto said, “the women’s room” of the Hotel-Dieu of Montreal, Eighteenth century. Collection of the religious hospitallers of St. Joseph.
The annaliste of the Ursulines of Quebec holds about similar : “The tingling began to make its ravages in the districts of montreal. It lasted all the winter following and the printems as well as a good part of two months, Ion has county more than 1500 patients and 3 to 400 dead the gentlemen of the Seminar were first taken and all of the leunes prestres and Ecclesiastical with their seminarians fell sick they have lost 5 of their escholiers two of their leunes Ecclesiastical Rds fathers lesuites have lost the Rd father Crespieuil former Missionary to tadoussac which is death of the fatigue that he has taken in visiting the sick and compassion for the misery of public or do voioit point of remedy all the city nestant a general hospital… After the disease has estendue in the costes next and finally she went to aus country denhaut and everywhere it has made much of the Devastation.”
One of the rooms of the sick of the Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec in 1877. The rules governing the functioning of this institution have remained about the same between the Seventeenth and the Twentieth century. BAnQ Québec (P1000, S4, D59, P54).
Witness the crisis which has shaken Quebec, the new cemetery of Quebec city took the name of Cemetery for victims of smallpox. It will be used until 1857, and then abandoned. The site is today the rue Hamel in Old Quebec.
6. The epidemic in the countryside
In the countryside, the situation is hardly more brilliant. According to the parish priest Vilermaula Laprairie, “… to the chicken pox [petite verole] began to make its ravages in the districts of montreal. it lasted all the winter Following and the printems as well as a good part of the summer was due to the year one thousand Seven hundred and troy was to suffer, the inhabitants not being in a state to act. all those who were born in the country Felt the rigours of this cruel disease, and even several Francois except some of the older in were afflicted. so everyone spent that has Soy and the Priest did was not the time to think of other matters than the needs of His patients, whose parish there was a hospital.”
These words could probably be taken over in full by his colleague Rémy-de-Lachine. On a little more than 200 inhabitants of this parish, 21 deaths, especially of children, are attributable to this epidemic that is raging between the December 18, 1702, and June 6, 1703.
In the whole of the colony, from 1000 to 1200 inhabitants succumb to the disease, representing approximately 80 deaths per 1000 inhabitants. That is to say, the magnitude of the disaster.
7. A disease now eradicated
In 1980, the three former directors of the Program for global eradication of smallpox (WHO) read the text announcing officially the success of this company. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Atlanta, Georgia, United States), Public Health Image Library (PHIL), image 7079.
Smallpox return periodically in Canada. In 1885, when the last great smallpox epidemic in Canada, it hits the city of Montreal and makes 5864 dead on 20 000 people. In the Twentieth century, the Program of global eradication of smallpox, sponsored by the world Health Organization (WHO) succeeds in defeating the disease. WHO can declare smallpox officially eradicated on 8 may 1980. It remains today that of the specimens in two different laboratories: one in Russia; the other in the United States.
A text of Rénald Lessard, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec
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For more information
▪ Lessard, Rénald. At the time of the small-pox. The medicine in Canada for the XVIIe and XVIIIe centuries. Québec, éditions du Septentrion, 2012. 448 p.
▪ Fenn, Elizabeth A., Pox Americana. The great smallpox epidemic of 1775-82. New York, Hill and Wang, 2001. 370 p.