Little Bits of History

Vaccine Wars, Early Edition

Posted in History by patriciahysell on September 28, 2015
William Hingston

William Hingston

September 28, 1885: The Montreal smallpox riot begins. A train had been to Chicago, where a smallpox epidemic was in progress and arrived at Bonaventure Station after a stop in Toronto. The conductor was running a fever and he had blisters on his hands and face. Smallpox is a virus and even now is difficult to treat. At the time, there was nothing to do but pray for a cure. Dr. William Hingston was Montreal’s former mayor (1875-77) and a smallpox expert. He had been involved in the epidemic of 1872-75. The virus is very easily transmitted and the disease had a high mortality rate. When the blisters affect blood vessels, the patient can hemorrhage to death. The blisters can form anywhere and left scars on those who survived. If the corneas were affected, the patient was blinded.

The need to contain the epidemic was paramount. But there were few options available. The patient needed care, but the disease was communicable. If they were brought to the hospital, they had to be quarantined or else they and their caregivers had to be quarantined at home. There was another option. A smallpox vaccine existed. Local doctors were divided as to whether or not mandatory vaccination should be carried out across the city. The vaccine was created years before and had proved effective against contracting the disease, and if already exposed, lessening the symptoms of the disease.

The vaccine was offered for free but the poor and less educated residents were loathe to submit to the public health measures. If approached, they refused. The French print newspapers and a few doctors insisted the vaccinations were unneeded. Children in a local orphanage were vaccinated but the conditions were appalling and while they didn’t contract smallpox, many became ill due to unsanitary conditions. The city was in peril. The ten day incubation period meant that people who felt fine were contagious and capable of spreading this often fatal disease. More people were getting sick and dying. Something had to be done. The authorities went to the newspapers and explained the necessity of getting a vaccine.

Explained in the papers was the treatment of smallpox patients with forced entry into a newly reopened hospital explicitly to treat smallpox. Those who refuse were taken by force. On this day, after the papers came out, the people in poorer neighborhoods began to rebel against both the forced hospitalizations and the vaccinations. They began to gather and throw stones and break windows of pharmacies and doctors’ offices where vaccines were freely available. They also attacked City Hall. Rioting continued into the night despite a strong police presence and shots fired. Compliance was impossible to enforce. About 9,000 people contracted the disease in Montreal alone. Of those, 3.234 died. More were taken ill and died in neighboring towns.

A higher rate of urgency does not imply ever-present panic, anxiety, or fear. It means a state in which complacency is virtually absent. – John Kotter

The truth is incontrovertible. Panic may resent it, ignorance may deride it, malice may distort it, but there it is. – Winston Churchill

If everything is God’s will, then so is the invention of the vaccine, just like the seatbelt. – Els Borst

Education is the vaccine for violence. – Edward James Olmos

Also on this day: Victory – In 1781, George Washington began his assault on Yorktown, the last battle of the Revolutionary War.
Hostage Taking – In 1975, the Spaghetti House siege began.
Black Sox – In 1920, eight Chicago White Sox players were indicted.
Races – In 1919, the Omaha Race Riots began.
Nice Guys Finish Last – In 935, Good King Wenceslaus was killed.