Coronavirus warning: How hospital sparked spread of deadly virus in Montreal

In 1885 a bout of smallpox gripped Montreal killing thousands of its people and infecting many more. A series of misunderstandings and mistakes made by the public and authorities led to the outbreak gaining momentum.


Medicine was not so advanced, with the only available vaccinations in short supply and expensive, many could not afford to protect themselves.

Others decided against vaccination altogether, suspicious of its side-effects.

A decisive moment in the virus’ spread through the city came in April 1885.

The first smallpox patient had been admitted to Hôtel Dieu and infected Pélagie Robichaud, a laundry worker, and her sister, Marie.

The sisters died and in the following days new cases of smallpox continued to appear in the hospital.

In order to stop the virus spreading within the hospital, the hospital board decided that all patients had to be sent home, the hospital disinfected.

Michael Bliss, an historian interviewed on Outbreak: Anatomy of a Plague in 2010, explained the extent to which the mistake added to the looming epidemic.

He said: “This turned out to be a really disastrous decision.

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“In sending home people from Hôtel Dieu, who were contaminated with smallpox, you then move smallpox onto the streets of Montreal.

“Now it was abroad in the city.”

With more people out on the streets going about their daily business, potential carriers were exposing others to the disease.

Dr Marcel Cadotte, head of pathology at Hôtel Dieu de Montreal, explained the various things that people began to blame for the virus’ spread when the hospital patents were released.


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One of many things was ‘miasmas’ or ‘bad air’ in which people thought pollution was to blame for disease.

He said: “That was during a time, back in 1885, when medicine was not nearly as advanced as it is today.

“During that era they referred to ‘miasmas’.

“They said there was ‘bad air’ called miasmas.

“And a lot of diseases that could be transmitted from one person to another were said to be caused by these miasmas.”

The smallpox epidemic in Montreal was preventable, but a series of steps in the wrong direction led to the mass deaths.

A smallpox vaccination, developed by Edward Jenner in England, 1796, was widespread and considered a successful way of preventing the disease.

Yet, French Canadians became suspicious of vaccination, associating it with British surgeons.

Many of the French lived in the cramp and shabby districts of the city, and were hostile towards attempts to help them to contain the disease.

Some 5,864 people died, a further 13,000 permanently disfigured by the disease.

In the end, nine out of every ten smallpox victims of the outbreak were French.

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