The End of the Crippler

18 April 1955

Thanks to vaccines we no longer live in fear of many infectious diseases that used to stalk the world killing millions each year, and maiming or crippling tens of millions more. By the early 1950s, Canadian children were routinely immunized against smallpox, diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus. But several diseases remained to be conquered. One of the most feared was poliomyelitis, also known as infantile paralysis for its propensity to affect the young, or “the Crippler.”

Polio, 2-2-1950 OJ

Anti-Polio Advertisement, The Ottawa Journal, 2 February, 1950.

The disease is caused by the poliovirus, a type of enterovirus of the family Picornaviridae. It was first isolated in 1908 by the Austrian researchers and physicians Karl Landsteiner and Erwin Popper. The virus has three serotype versions (PV1-Brunhide, PV2-Lansing and PV3-Leon). All are virulent, though PV1-Brunhide is the most common strain, and the one most associated with paralysis. Most people who come into contact with the polio virus experience no symptoms beyond a sore throat, a gastrointestinal upset, a slight fever, and a general malaise. Called “abortive polio,” this is considered a minor illness that leaves no permanent effects. A small percentage of victims experience “aseptic” polio that also involves severe neck, back and muscle pain, as well as a bad fever. In a still smaller percentage of sufferers, the polio virus attacks the central nervous system leading to muscle flaccidity, especially of the limbs, and paralysis. Depending on what part of the nervous system is affected, “paralytic” polio is classified as spinal, bulbar, and bulbospinal. In some cases, the diaphragm and chest muscles are affected. Sufferers of this form of the disease need help to breath. In 1927, two Harvard researchers invented the “iron lung,” into which paralysed patients were placed to aid their breathing mechanically. Although most were able to leave the machine after several weeks, some were confined for years, or had to use a portable breathing apparatus. Polio suffers whose limbs had become paralyzed sometimes recovered their use after a few weeks. However, some many were left permanently disabled. Two to ten per cent of people stricken with paralytic polio died. There is no cure for the disease, only prevention.

Polio, Department of National Defence -LACPatient in Iron Lung with Nursing Lt. H.F. Ott and Surg. Lt. K.R. Flegg 16-7-57 MIKAN no. 4951401

Patient in Iron Lung with Nursing Lt. H.F. Ott and Surgeon Lt. K.R. Flegg, 16 May 1957, Department of National Defence/Library & Archives Canada, Mikan # 4951401.

Although polio has been around for thousands of years, it didn’t use to have the fearful reputation that it had during the first half of the twentieth century. For the most part, people had acquired a natural immunity to the disease.  But as living standards and hygiene improved, the incidence of the disease paradoxically increased. The natural immunity that protected people had been weakened or lost. According to Christopher Rutty, a medical historian, fears about polio, heightened by publicity, were disproportionate to the risk of catching the paralytic form of the disease. But frightened parents told their children to “regard [polio] as a fierce monster” that was “more sinister than death itself.” The fact that people at the time didn’t understand the transmission mechanism of the disease (typically faecal-oral) made it all the scarier. You didn’t know what to do to protect yourself and your family. When outbreaks occurred, often during the summer months, health officials in epidemic areas closed cinemas, playgrounds, and delayed school openings. In Ottawa, when the federal government announced in 1950 that the water from the Rideau River would be temporarily diverted to allow for repairs near its outfall into the Ottawa River, residents of Sandy Hill, fearful of polio-infected flies that might breed in exposed marshes and refuse, lobbied for the repairs to be delayed until after the summer polio season.

People stricken with polio were sent to special isolation hospitals for a minimum of seven days required by provincial law. Their families were quarantined. Ottawa’s Strathcona Isolation Hospital was one of six designated centres for the treatment of polio in Ontario. The other centres were located in Toronto, Kingston, London, Hamilton and Windsor. The Strathcona Hospital’s “territory” ran from Pembroke to Morrisburg. In 1953, the old hospital was closed when a new East Lawn Pavilion with isolation facilities was opened at the Ottawa Civic Hospital. Seventeen patients were transferred from the Strathcona facility, including one in an iron lung. Although this was a time before provincial health insurance (OHIP), the care for polio victims was paid for by the provincial government. Later, following complaints by doctors that they couldn’t submit bills to well-to-to polio patients, the government modified the rules to allow doctors to charge wealthy patients. Poor patients continued to receive free care at teaching hospitals connected to universities.

Following the election of Franklin Roosevelt at President of the United States in 1933, who was himself a polio survivor, the medical profession in the United States and Canada took aim at the disease. Funding for research into the development of a vaccine was provided in the United States by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis that had its roots in a private anti-polio organization started by the Roosevelt family. The Foundation sponsored an annual March of Dimes campaign supported by Hollywood stars to raise money to find a cure for the disease and to care for polio victims. In Canada, a parallel organization called the Canadian Foundation for Poliomyelitis was founded in Ottawa in 1949. The Canadian Foundation held the first Canadian March of Dimes campaign the following year. Newspapers across the country carried the photograph of “Linda,” a child polio victim wearing iron leg braces. In Ottawa, twenty-five hundred blue and red checkered collection boxes were distributed in stores, banks and restaurants.

Polio ad, 4-2-50 OJ

Advertisement for the Canadian March of Dimes, 1950 Campaign, The Ottawa Journal, 4 February 1950.

In 1953, North America experienced it worst outbreak of polio in decades. In Canada, there were 8,878 reported cases, mostly in Manitoba and Ontario, with a death rate of 3.3 persons per 100,000 population, far higher than during earlier outbreaks.  Ottawa had 100 recorded cases by the end of that year’s polio season with four deaths. To help control the spread of the disease, Dr J. J. Dey, the city’s medical officer of health, advised Ottawa citizens not to drink unpasteurized milk, not to jump into water when the body was tired, and to avoid fatigue. He also told people to stay away from crowds, to keep the house free from flies, and to wash all fruits and vegetables. More usefully, he advised people to wash their hands frequently, and to boil drinking water if one had any doubts.

Fortunately, by this time, a vaccine was close at hand. In 1949, Harvard scientist Dr John Enders discovered that the polio virus could be propagated in the organs of monkeys. The following year, the Polish-born virologist Hilary Koprowski developed an experimental oral vaccine using a live but weakened virus of the PV2-Lansing variety of the disease, and successfully immunized some twenty children in New York State.

Polio, Jonas Salk, 1955 Owl student yearbook, 1957

Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh, 1955, The Owl – University of Pittsburgh Digital Archives, Wikipedia.

Meanwhile, at the University of Pittsburgh, Jonas Salk was working on determining the number of different strains of polioviruses and developing a vaccine using dead viruses that would be effective against all strains of the disease. Connaught Laboratories at the University of Toronto, supported by a federal grant as well as money provided by the Canadian March of Dimes, was also developing the procedure for producing industrial-size quantities of the polio virus, a necessary and vital step for the mass production of the Salk vaccine. Related work was conducted at the Institute of Microbiology and Hygiene in Montreal. Connaught later supplied much of the virus that went into making the Salk vaccine in North America as well as making the vaccine itself for the Canadian inoculation campaign.

By 1954, Salk who had safely tested his vaccine first on his family and then on 700 volunteers was ready for a large-scale test. He organized a trial involving two million children. Half received a three-shot dose of the experimental vaccine over a period of several weeks with the other half receiving placebos. Most of the children were American. But U.S. authorities offered 50,000 doses to Canada. Health departments in Alberta and Nova Scotia took up the offer and inoculated thousands of young children. In mid-April 1955, the results of the trial were announced to a packed conference room at the University of Michigan: polio had been defeated! The vaccine had been 80% effective in protecting children from the disease. The relief was palpable. Immediately, steps were taken to inoculate all children in North America starting with those in Grades 1 and 2.

Polio elgin public school

Polio shots at Elgin Street Public School, 1955, Newton Photographic Associates Ltd, City of Ottawa Archives, MG393-NP-36093-006, CA 025699.

In Canada, the inoculations were paid for on a 50:50 basis by the federal and provincial governments. Youngsters in Toronto and Pembroke received the first dose of the vaccine in early April even before the official announcement of Salk’s successful mass trial. The inoculation programme began in Ottawa on Monday, 18 April 1955. That morning, Grade 1 and 2 students at four public schools (Elgin, Lady Evelyn, Borden and Cambridge) and five separate schools (Ste Famille, St Patrick, St Jean Baptiste, St Anthony and Christ the King) received their first round of shots. That afternoon, five more schools were visited by teams of nurses. Children in remaining schools received their shots through the week. Parents had to sign a consent form for their children to receive the inoculation with the warning that if the children missed the first shot, they couldn’t receive the subsequent shots. Across the Ottawa River in Hull, the inoculation programme started in May with children aged two to three years since that age group had been most affected in Quebec during the 1953 epidemic.

In the midst of the roll-out of the continent-wide vaccination campaign, disaster struck.  Some children in the United States came down with polio after having received their shots. Several died. The problem was traced to poor quality control at the Cutter Laboratories of Berkeley, California, one of six American vaccine manufacturers. Their vaccine contained live instead of dead viruses. According to the Journal of Pediatrics, the vaccine had been rushed. The U.S. vaccination programme was temporarily suspended despite the coming onset of the 1955 polio season. In Canada, Health Minister Paul Martin Sr faced one of the toughest decisions of his life: should the Canadian programme also be suspended as Prime Minister St Laurent wished? With all of the Canadian vaccine produced at Toronto’s Connaught Laboratories, and having full confidence in Canadian scientists and doctors, he ordered the Canadian programme to go ahead as planned. No Canadian child came down with polio as result of the vaccine.

By August 1955, the number of polio cases in Canada and the United States had dropped dramatically even though only a portion of children had been immunized. In November, Paul Martin publicly stated “I don’t think there can be any doubt that it [the vaccine] has had some effect.” By 1962, the number of reported polio cases in Canada had fallen to only 89.

In the early 1960s, the Salk vaccine was generally replaced by an oral vaccine using live but weakened viruses developed by Albert Sabin who drew on the earlier work of Hilary Koprowski. The Sabin vaccine was cheap to produce and administer and was very powerful—95 per cent effective after three doses (one for each polio strain). Polio infection rates around the world plummeted. In 1988, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a campaign to eradicated polio from the world supported by national governments, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, Rotary International and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2000, the Americas were certified as polio free. In 2014, South-East Asia was certified as polio free. By 2016, the number of reported polio cases worldwide had dropped to only 37 located in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The WHO estimates that because of the global vaccination campaign, 16 million people walk today who otherwise would have been paralyzed. Many, many lives have also been saved. However, war and civil strife threaten this achievement. Endemic transmission of the disease continues in the three remaining polio hotspots. With vaccination efforts disrupted in these areas, the Crippler could well return.

 

Sources:

CBC Archives, 1993. A History of Polio in Canada, posted 7 April 2016, http://www.cbc.ca/arts/archives/a-history-of-polio-in-canada-1.3332940.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014, Poliomyelitis, https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/surv-manual/chpt12-polio.html.

Council Bluffs Nonpareil (Iowa), 1954. “Report Results of Polio Research,” 11 April.

MedicineNet.com. 2017. Medical Definition of Abortive Polio, http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=8611.

Museum of Health Care at Kingston, 2017, Polio, https://www.museumofhealthcare.ca/explore/exhibits/vaccinations/polio.html.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1949. “First Fatal Polio Case,” 20 July.

————————–, 1949. “Ottawa Cases of Polio Total 29 This Year,” 15 August.

————————–, 1949. “Foundation Plans Drive For Funds to Fight Polio,” 4 November.

————————–, 1950. “Rideau Draining To Proceed,” 10 August.

————————–, 1950. “St. Germain’s Protest Against Rideau Draining,” 15 August.

————————–, 1950. “March of Dimes For Polio Victims Starts Sunday,” 30 December.

————————–, 1953. “Ontario Announces new Policy For Treating Polio,”6 January.

————————–, 1953. “MOH Issues Statement on Polio,” 17 July.

————————–, 1953. “Lab Producing Polio Virus In Quantities,” 25 September.

————————–, 1953. “Polio Season Is Over,” 14 October.

————————–, 1953. “Hope-Filled Polio Vaccine For Million U.S. Children,” 17 November.

————————–, 1953. “New East Lawn Pavilion Opened At Civic,” 16 December

————————–, 1954. “Provinces Offered U.S. Polio Vaccine,”26 May.

————————–, 1955. “Polio Shots April 18 For Ottawa Children,” 4 March.

————————–, 1955. “Ottawa Will Start Trials of Polio Vaccine April 18,” 9 April.

————————–, 1955. “SALK CONQUERS POLIO,” 12 April.

————————–, 1955. “Salk Was So Confident of Success His Own Children Got Vaccine First,” 12 April.

————————–, 1955. “Ontario to Provide Injections for All School Children,” 12 April.

————————–, 1955. “Man’s Victory Over Polio,” 13 April.

————————–, 1955. “Duplessis Decides Quebec To Take Part In Anti-Polio Plan,” 15 April.

————————-, 1955. “First Week of Vaccine Shots Against Polio Start Monday,” 16 April.

————————–, 1955. “Salk Answers Critical Questions,” 7 June.

————————–, 1955. “Vaccine Producer Sued After boy Contracts Polio,” 24 June.

————————–, 1955. “U.S.A. ‘Polio Vaccine Mixup,’” 27 July.

————————–, 1955. “Big Drop In Deaths By Polio,” 12 August.

————————–, 1955. “U.S. Polio Fatalities Reduced Sharply,” 12 August.

————————–, 1955. “Martin Credits Salk Vaccine,” 1 November.

Rutty, Christopher, 1995. “Do Something!…Anything! Poliomyelitis in Canada, 1927-1962,” http://healthheritageresearch.com/PolioPHD.html.

———————-, 1999. The Middle-Class Plague: Epidemic Polio and the Canadian State, 1936-37, http://www.healthheritageresearch.com/MCPlague.html.

Smithsonian, National Museum of American History, 2017. The Iron Lung and Other Equipment, http://amhistory.si.edu/polio/howpolio/ironlung.htm.

World Health Organization, 2017. Poliomyelitis, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs114/en/.

 

 

 

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Jewelled Plague

25 July 2008

Something was wrong with the ash trees in the east end of Ottawa. Trees lining St Laurent Boulevard and Ogilvy Road near the Queensway were under stress, their upper canopies thinning, with wild growth appearing lower down their trunks. Sent out to investigate, the city’s Forestry Services discovered small “D” shaped holes on their trunks and branches along with strange serpentine tunnels that scored the wood immediately under the bark. On 25 July 2008, Ottawa City Council received the Forestry Services’ grim report—the emerald ash borer had arrived in the city.

Agrilus planipennis, a.k.a. the emerald ash borer, is a small, metallic-looking member of the beetle family.  Measuring only about 8.5 to 14 millimetres in length and 3 to 4 millimetres in width, this attractive insect, sometimes referred to as a “jewel” beetle, is native to north-east Asia, including parts of China, Japan and Russia. Its larvae feed on the cambium of ash trees (genus fraxinus); the mountain ash (genus sorbus) is not affected.   The cambium is the thin layer of cells found between the wood of a tree and its protective bark.  On its inward side, the cambium produces sapwood which carries water and other nutrients up to the tree’s leaves, while on its outward side it produces the phloem which carries nutrients produced by the leaves through photosynthesis down to the roots. It’s this cambium layer that makes the annual growth rings in a cross-section of a tree truck.

Emerald Ash Borer

Agrilus planipennis: the emerald ash borer

In the spring, the adult female ash borers deposit their eggs on the bark or in cracks in the bark of infected trees. Up to as many as 90 eggs can be deposited by each female. After about a week, the larvae emerge and make their way to the cambium layer on which they feed. In the process, they make serpentine “galleries” through the cambium and sapwood. A serious infestation can girdle a tree, effectively disrupting the tree’s ability to draw nutrients and water up to its leaves, killing it in the process. The mature larvae pupate over winter with the adults emerging in mid-May or June from exit holes of about 4 millimetres in diameter.  The adult males live for about two weeks, while the females survive a week or so longer. Adult ash borers are good flyers and can travel for up to one kilometre. The insects can also be disbursed through the movement of infected wood and wood products.

Trees attacked by the emerald ash borer typically die within a few years of being infected. In their natural range in Asia, the insect is considered a minor and episodic pest, with recent research showing that it is biologically controlled by at least three species of tiny, stingless wasps, Oobius agrili, Spathius agrili, and Tetrastichus planipennisi. These wasps, measuring only slightly more than one millimetre in length, parasitize ash borer larvae by laying their eggs on them. When the wasp larvae emerge, they eat the ash borer host larvae, killing them.

In the summer of 2002, the emerald ash borer was identified in several south-eastern counties of the U.S. state of Michigan as well as one county in bordering Ontario. It is believed that the insect was introduced, possibly as long as five years earlier, into North America through the port of Detroit in wooden packing used to protect goods transported by ship from China.  Since then, the invasive and destructive insect has quickly spread, affecting countless ash trees throughout central United States, Ontario and into Quebec, apparently unimpeded by our cold winters.

The arrival of the emerald ash borer in Ottawa represented a major threat to the city’s urban forest as ash account for more than 25 per cent of trees in the Ottawa area, and up to as much as 40 per cent in parts of eastern Ontario. Ironically, many of the city’s threatened ash trees, fast growing and tolerant to air pollution, were planted during the 1960s and 1970s to replace dying elm trees, felled by Dutch elm disease. That arboreal epidemic was caused by a different alien invader, a fungus that also originated in Asia which was subsequently spread by host beetles throughout North America. A still-earlier imported blight killed off 99 per cent of eastern North America’s chestnut trees, once a mainstay of southern Ontario forests, at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Dying Ash

Dying Ash Tree on Ash Lane at the Central Experimental Farm, July 2014

Since the summer of 2008, the emerald ash borer has spread throughout the city despite municipal, provincial and federal efforts to control the pest through regulations that strictly control the movement of firewood from the affected areas, and encourage the removal of infected trees, and their replacement with different species. In some cases, systemic insecticides injected into a tree’s bark have also been applied to save trees. Despite these efforts, the emerald plague has continued its advance. Less than two years after being first identified in Ottawa, ash trees at the Central Experimental Farm came under attack leading to the felling of eighty-year old ash trees on Ash Lane to be replaced by maples, ginko bilobas, and oaks; Ash Lane was gone in all but name. In 2012, Andrew Haydon Park lost close to 1,000 of its ash trees. By 2013, dead and dying trees were everywhere, along streets, in neighbourhood playgrounds and schoolyards, and in city parks.

In June 2013, there was finally a small bit of positive news. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency gave its approval for the introduction of a biological control, enlisting the help of Spathius agrili, and Tetrastichus planipennis, two of the three parasitic wasps, in the battle to contain the ash borer beetle. While the wasps would not be able to eliminate the beetle, it is hoped that over the long run some kind of ecological balance could be restored. It remains to be seen whether this new approach will be able to save our remaining ash trees. Regardless, Ottawa’s landscape has been radically altered.

Sources:

Ash Trees & Emerald Ash Borer: http://www.manotick.net/docs/emeraldashborer.html.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Central Experimental Farm Advisory Council: http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/about-us/offices-and-locations/central-experimental-farm/about-the-farm/central-experimental-farm-advisory-council/central-experimental-farm-advisory-council-meeting-dates/central-experimental-farm-advisory-council/?id=1355771625561.

Ottawa City Council, Report to Committee(s) of Council Internal Routing

http://www.shadqadri.com/document/ACS2008-PWS-SOP-0012.pdf

European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization, Data sheets on quarantine pests, Agrilus planipennis: http://www.eppo.int/QUARANTINE/insects/Agrilus_planipennis/DS_Agrilus_planipennis.pdf?utm_source=www.eppo.org&utm_medium=int_redirect.

The Manotick Directory, 2013. “Emerald Ash Borer, Two Choices: Treat or Cut,” http://www.manotick.net/docs/emeraldashborer.html.

 The Ottawa Citizen, 2008. “Invasive Beetle Threatens Ash Trees,” 26 July.

———————-, 2013. “Approved: Tiny Wasps that Kill Emerald Ash Borer,” 5 June.

Image: Emerald Ash Borer,Anthrophysis,  http://anthrophysis.blogspot.ca/2011/09/invasive-forest-insects-damage-budgets.html.

Image: Dying Ash Tree on Ash Lane, Central Experimental Farm, July 2014, by Nicolle Powell

The Great Epizootic

12 October 1872

Imagine waking up one morning to discover that all motor vehicles had stopped working—no buses, no cars, no trucks, and no airplanes. People wouldn’t be able to get to work or school unless they lived close by. There would be no deliveries of food and merchandise to stores. Farmers would be left with mounds of rotting produce in the field, while factories would grind to a halt owing to a dearth of spare parts and absent workers. Meanwhile, police, firefighters and other emergency response workers would be unable to respond to urgent calls for help. Government would cease to function (okay, there might be an upside). In short, it would be a nightmare.

Rather than being a script worthy of a Hollywood post-apocalyptic movie, this effectively happened during the autumn of 1872, with disastrous consequences right across North America. It all started about fifteen miles north of Toronto during late September of that year. Horses in the townships of York, Scarborough and Markham began to sicken, coming down with a sore throat, a slight swelling of the glands, a severe hacking cough, a brownish-yellow discharge from the nose, a loss of appetite and general feebleness. Veterinaries hadn’t seen anything like it before. On 30 September, Andrew Smith, veterinary surgeon of the Ontario Veterinary College in Toronto, found fourteen stricken horses in one stable. Three days later, three-quarters of the horses in the district were infected.

The disease quickly spread to Toronto and beyond. It was reported in Ottawa on 12 October, and within a month had reached the east coast. Only Prince Edward Island, cut off from the mainland, escaped the disease. Horses in the United States also began to sicken, the disease striking Buffalo and Detroit by 13 October, and spreading within days to all the major cities on the eastern seaboard. The illness was identified in Chicago on 29 October after a number of horses imported from Toronto a few days earlier fell ill. By mid-March 1873, the disease had reached all the way to California, in the process disrupting a war between the U.S. cavalry and Apache warriors underway in Arizona Territory. With their horses incapacitated, cavalrymen and warriors fought on foot. A year after the Toronto-area outbreak, the illness had spread south to Nicaragua in Central America. The epidemic became known as the “Great Epizootic,” since it was an epidemic than infected animals, or “Canadian horse distemper.”

The horses were ill with equine influenza which we now know is caused by two types of related viruses, equine 1 (H7N7) and equine 2 (H3N8). But at the time, it was widely believed that the disease was due to something in the air. The Ottawa Daily Citizen reported that it was the opinion of a well-known veterinary surgeon that the disease was caused by atmospheric influences, “probably having some connection with [] recent thunderstorms.” The disease was typically not fatal, having a mortality rate of 1-3 per cent though it reached 10 per cent in some areas. However, the morbidity rate approached 100 per cent.  Horses were left incapacitated for up to a month, hobbling transportation across the continent.

Epizootic

Advertisement appearing in The Ottawa Daily Citizen, 21 October 1872

Within ten days of its first appearance in Ottawa, the situation had become serious in the capital, with the disease having “assumed a violent form as to cause considerable anxiety to horse owners.” All public livery stables were affected, as were an increasing number of stables owned by private citizens. By 21 October, veterinaries were dealing with hundreds of cases each day. It was estimated that fewer than 50 horses in the Ottawa region were unaffected. The horse-drawn street railway service that provided public transit from New Edinburgh through downtown to LeBreton Flats was temporarily suspended when all but six of its horses came down with influenza. One died.

The Ottawa Daily Citizen recommended that infected horses should be kept warm in well-ventilated stables and fed soft food, such as oatmeal, boiled oats, or gruel. To promote an appetite, the newspaper suggested that owners try to temp sick horses with a carrot or apple.  It also recommended cleaning out stables with bromo-chloralum, a deodorant and disinfectant. According for an advertisement for the product, it protected against “atmospheric influences which contribute to the spreading of disease.”

Small-town Ottawa got off lightly. Big U.S. cities like New York City and Boston, where horses were crammed together in dirty, multi-storied, urban stables, fared far worse. In New York City, more than 30,000 horses sickened within the course of a few days. At least 1,400 animals died of the disease. City transit failed, a major inconvenience for people living in the suburbs. Businesses and draymen, who transported goods on flat-bed wagons, were reported to be the worst affected. In Boston, oxen were brought in to replace sick horses on some transit lines. Tragically, on 9 November 1872, a fire started in a hoop-skirt factory in downtown Boston. In normal circumstances, it would have been easily contained. However, with all its horses down with the flu, the fire service was unable to respond in time, and the fire quickly got out of control. More than 775 buildings housing in excess of 1,000 businesses were destroyed. As many as twenty people perished.

The economic consequences of the disease as it spread across the continent were immense. In addition to cities coming to a virtual standstill for close to a month, traffic on the important Erie Canal from New York to Buffalo came to a halt as the horses that pulled the barges sickened. Even railways were affected as they ran out of coal that was shipped to rail terminals by horse-drawn wagons. Things got so bad that the United States was forced to import healthy horses from Mexico. Many economists believe that the Great Epizootic  set the stage for the “Panic” of 1873, an economic depression that lasted for six years. The disease underscored the fragility of an animal-dependent economy.

Epizootic Map

Map of North America showing the spread of the epizootic from Judson, A., 1873. “History and Course of the Epizootic Among Horses Upon The North American Continent, 1872-73.”

The epidemic was the first disease whose advance was closely tracked across a continent. In the process, it became abundantly clear that “atmospheric conditions” had nothing to do with the contagion. A study of the disease debunked the idea that “cold, heat, humidity, season, climate, or altitude” or any other “unrecognized atmospheric conditions” had any bearing on the disease. Rather, the disease was spread “by virtue of its communicability.”  Everywhere the disease struck was in contact with other places by means of horses or mules. Supporting this conclusion was the fact that isolated places, such as Prince Edward Island in the east or Vancouver Island in the west, were spared the disease; PEI was cut off due to bad winter weather, while a quarantine against the importation of horses was established on Vancouver Island. This analysis helped overturn the “miasma” theory of disease, which attributed illnesses to poisonous vapours, in favour of the “germ theory” of disease. It also set the stage for a better understanding of how disease is transmitted among humans, something that would become of vital importance less than fifty years later with the spread of the Spanish flu, a similar human disease that conservatively killed fifty million people at the end of World War I.

Sources:

Churcher, C. 2014, “Local Railway Items from Ottawa newspapers—1872,” The Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1872. “Ottawa City Passenger,” 19 October, http://www.railways.incanada.net/Circle/Papers%20by%20Year/1872.pdf.

——————–, 2014, “Local Railway Items from Ottawa newspapers—1872,” The Ottawa Free Press, 1872, “Ottawa City Passenger,” 23 October, http://www.railways.incanada.net/Circle/Papers%20by%20Year/1872.pdf.

Facts on File, 2014. Great Epizootic, Entry 602, http://www.fofweb.com.

Judson, Adoniram, B. M.D., 1873. “History and Course of the Epizootic Among Horses Upon The North American Continent, 1872-73,” American Public Health Association, Public Health, Reports and Papers, 1873.

Heritage Restorations, H2012. “The Great Epizootic of 1872,” SustainLife Quarterly Journal, (Fall), Ploughshares Institute for Sustainable Culture, http://www.heritagebarns.com/the-great-epizootic-of-1872/#.U-NlzfldWSp.

Horsetalk, 2014. “How Equine Flu brought the US to a standstill,” 17 February, http://horsetalk.co.nz/2014/02/17/how-equine-flu-brought-us-standstill/#axzz36dPerMyd.

Murnane, Brigadier Dr. Thomas, 2014. James Law, America’s First Veterinary Epidemiologist and The Equine Influenza Epizootic of 1872, The Long Riders Guild Academic Foundation, http://www.lrgaf.org/medical/jameslaw-murnane.htm.

Passing Strangeness, 2009. The Great Epizootic, 13 May, http://passingstrangeness.wordpress.com/2009/05/13/the-great-epizootic/.

The Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1872. “Epizootic,” 21 October.

The Public Ledger, 1872. “The Epizootic in the United States,” 16 November.

The Spanish Lady

26 September 1918

It was 1918, and the Great War was into its fifth year. In March, Germany launched a massive offensive on the Western Front in a desperate attempt to break the military stalemate before American doughboys arrived in force. But as soldiers of the Allied and Central Powers grappled in the mud of France and Belgium, a new, insidious enemy emerged, affecting both sides without discrimination. Amidst the clamour of war, it initially went unnoticed. But as tens of thousands at the front and at home began to experience symptoms of fatigue, loss of appetite, aches, stuffy nose, cough, high fever and in some cases death, it became clear that the world was facing something new and terrible. People called it the “Spanish” influenza, or the “plague of the Spanish Lady.”

Those first affected were in fact the lucky ones as they acquired an immunity that largely protected them from a far more virulent form of the disease that emerged later than year. Hundreds of millions of people around the world fell ill. With a mortality rate of 10-20 per cent, millions succumbed either of influenza, or of secondary infections, including pneumonia. Oddly, a disproportionate number were young adults rather than the very young or old. Pandemic experts place the number of dead at 50-100 million, equivalent to 3-6 per cent of the world’s population, before the disease petered out by early 1919. In comparison, “only” 17 million soldiers and civilians died in the Great War. Canada got off relatively lightly. 50,000 Canadians died of the flu in the space of a few months, compared to 65,000 Canadian military deaths in four and a half years of war.

Today, we know the “Spanish flu” as the avian H1N1 subtype of the influenza A virus. But in 1918 the cause of the disease was unknown. Most doctors thought it was a type of bacterial infection. Regardless, nobody was sure how to treat the disease, or how to stop its transmission. The only advice given was to avoid crowds and sneezing or coughing individuals, walk to work, eat well, and get a lot of rest.

Even the origins of the disease were uncertain. With news heavily censored in belligerent countries, accounts of the disease were initially reported in neutral Spain, and so it became identified with that country. One theory placed the disease’s origins in Kansas in the U.S. heartland. Another identified China as its point of origin, with the disease initially transmitted by infected Chinese workers who arrived in France via Canada to work behind the front lines. Regardless, the flu quickly spread around the world as thousands of infected soldiers travelled between home and the trenches.

Ottawa’s first fatality occurred on 26 September 1918, roughly two weeks after the first deaths in Canada were reported in Quebec City. Jules Lemieux, a 72-year old civil servant, succumbed to respiratory failure after a 5-day struggle. By mid-October, there were thousands of cases, with the city recording 50 deaths per day.

Ottawa’s Board of Health ordered the closure of schools and theatres, and forbade public gatherings. After some initial hesitation, churches cancelled services. The city’s streetcars were fumigated with formaldehyde. Stores and government offices closed at 4:00pm; the argument being that the body’s vitality was at its lowest ebb and hence most susceptible to the disease in the late afternoon. Over considerable public opposition, Ottawa’s Mayor Fisher cancelled sporting events, including a ploughing competition to have been held at the Experimental and Booth Farms. Although outdoors activities were considered safe, Fisher was concerned about people crowding onto streetcars to attend them.

In contrast, pharmacy hours were extended, with Sunday shopping temporarily permitted. With doctors prescribing whisky to patients, especially those in the pneumonia stage of the disease, anxious people crowded into drug stores, the only legal vendors of hard liquor during Prohibition. But pressure to allow drug stores to sell whisky without a $2 doctor’s prescription was resisted. Fisher argued that “the better physical condition of people, resulting from prohibition, had saved a great many lives.”

Despite precautionary measures, hospitals were flooded with patients. With medical staff also sickening, healthy doctors and nurses were taxed almost beyond human endurance. To help cope, a registry of voluntary nurses was set up by Lillian Freiman, wife of A. J. Freiman, the owner of Freiman’s department’s store on Rideau Street. Upon her recommendation, temporary hospitals were also established in schools and in the University of Ottawa dormitory on Laurier Avenue.

The disease hit all segments of society. But a disproportionate number of deaths occurred in the poor, largely francophone and Irish working class districts of LeBreton Flats, the home of the CP Railway Station, Lower Town, and areas adjacent to the Grand Truck Railway corridor than ran along the Rideau canal to Union Station. With the railways the main entry point for the disease, those working on or living close to the railways were at greatest risk. Over-crowded living quarters and poor hygiene were other contributing factors.

Influenza

Hospital near Fort Riley, Kansas in 1918,
A Flu Hot Spot

There were many sad stories. On Sunday, 6 October, George Neville of 61 Augusta Street, his wife Irene and their newborn child died within hours of each other in the same hospital. In Rochesterville on the city’s outskirts, a woman and her eight children were found ill by a worried neighbour. The mother was almost unconscious, while the children were laying about the house, all stricken with influenza.

With most able-bodied men in military service, the burden of caring for the sick and dying fell to women. Mayor Fisher called for their mobilization, asking the women of Ottawa “to get into the trenches themselves.” Women switched from making socks for soldiers to gauze masks and “pneumonia jackets” (padded cotton coats to keep in the body’s heat, supposedly hastening the disease’s progress and stimulating respiration). Female volunteers cared for those unable to get to hospitals. An appeal also went out for car owners to deliver supplies and nurses to homes of the ill, while the Central Canada Exhibition Office was converted into a soup kitchen, staffed by women.

Although many volunteered to help at great personal risk, some exploited the situation. Dubious patent remedies were sold to desperate people. “Fruit-A-Tives” billed itself as the wonderful fruit medicine that “gives the power to resist the disease.” A box of six tablets sold for $2.50, equivalent to about $37 in today’s money. Even Murphy-Gamble, the big Spark’s Street department store, encouraged women to dress warmly “To Check the ‘Flu.” According to its advertisement in The Ottawa Journal, the store claimed that “The woman who persists in wearing gauze undergarments and illusionary stockings in the face of unfavorable elements not only flirts with pneumonia, but courts the Pale Spectre.”

By mid-November, the disease appeared to have largely run its course in Ottawa, and life gradually returned to normal, or as normal as it could be with so many families having lost loved ones or friends. On 23 November, 1918, The Globe newspaper reported that the Spanish flu had claimed 570 lives in the capital, giving a death rate of 548 per 100,000 people, a far worse rate than that of most other major Canadian cities.

The influenza pandemic underscored the value of a co-ordinated national approach to Canadian health care leading to the establishment of the federal Department of Health in 1919.

Sources:

Bacic, Jadranka,  1998. The Plague of the Spanish Flu: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 in Ottawa, Bytown Pamphlet Series #63, The Historical Society of Ottawa.

Siamandas, George, 199?, The 1918 Influenza Outbreak: The Spanish Flu Panics Canada, http://timemachine.siamandas.com/PAGES/more%20stories/SPANISH_INFLUENZA%20.htm.

St. Pierre, Marc., 2002, Ottawa’s Dance with the Spanish Lady, 11 December, http://www.bytown.net/flu1918.htm.

The Globe and Mail, 1918. “The Spanish Influenza,” 1 October.

————————-,1918.  “Let Liquor Fight The Flu,” 10 October.

————————, 1918. “How Influenza Hit Ontario,” 23 November.

The National Post, 2014. “Spanish flu, the pandemic that killed 50 million, started in China — but may have spread via Canada, historian says, 4 February.

The Ottawa Journal,  1918. “Ottawa Valley is Badly Hit by Spanish Flue,” 4 October.

————————-, 1918. “Close Schools, Theatres, Etc. to Check “Flu,” 5 October.

————————-, 1918. “Influenza Spread Doctors Report to Board of Health,” 7 October.

————————-, 1918, “Mr. and Mrs. Neville And Babe Succumb,” 7 October.

————————-, 1918. “To Check the ‘Flu — Dress Warmly!”, 8 October.

————————-, 1918. “Nine in Family Reported Down With Influenza,” 9 October.

————————-, 1918. “Health Officers Think Situation Here Improved,” 10 October.

————————, “R.C. and Anglican Churches Cancel Sunday Services, 11 October.

————————, 1918. “Football Game Cancelled by Mayor at Late Hour Last Night,” 12 October.

————————, 1918. “Wont Hold Match Until Next Year,” 15 October.

————————, 1918. “To Close Stores at Four O’Clock on Board’s Order,” 15 October.

————————, 1918. “Gov’t Employees Will Quit Work at Four O’Clock,” 16 October.

———————–, 1918. “Spanish Influenza Rages in Canada,” 19 October.

Wikipedia, 2014, The 1918 Flu Pandemic, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1918_flu_pandemic.

Image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CampFunstonKS-InfluenzaHospital.jpg.

Water Woes

23 August 1912

Pure, sparkling clean, tap water. We tend to take it for granted. Occasionally our complacency is shaken, as it was in 2000 when seven people died in Walkerton, Ontario when e. coli contaminated the town’s drinking water. But, thankfully, that was a rare event. Ottawa’s tap water consistently gets top grades for quality. Raw water from the Ottawa River is filtered and chemically treated in several steps to remove bacteria, viruses, algae, and suspended particles. More than 100,000 tests are conducted each year to ensure that crystal clear, odourless, and, above all, safe water is supplied to Ottawa’s households and businesses.

But this was not always the case. One hundred years ago, two old, poorly maintained intake pipes that drew untreated water from mid-river were the source of the city’s water supply. But the Ottawa River was dangerously polluted. The region’s many lumber mills routinely dumped tons of waste each year into the river. Decomposing sawdust was actually responsible for the death of a man from Montebello in 1897 when he was thrown from his boat by a methane explosion. Meanwhile, raw sewage from Ottawa’s burgeoning population, as well as from Hull and other riverside communities, was simply flushed into the river. Sewage from inadequately maintained outdoor privies also leaked into the region’s many creeks and streams that fed the Ottawa River. It was a recipe for typhoid fever.

While typhoid stalked all major Canadian cities during the first years of the twentieth century, Ottawa was among the worst affected. The disease annually claimed on average twenty lives, a shockingly high number for a community of perhaps 75,000 souls. Most of the deaths were recorded in the poor, squalid districts of Lower Town and LeBreton Flats. Civic officials, at best complaisant, at worse criminally negligent, did nothing. It was perhaps easier, and cheaper, to blame the poor’s unhygienic living conditions than to do something about the water supply. But even the death in 1907 of the eldest daughter of Lord Grey, the Governor General, who had been visiting her parents from London, didn’t prompt action.

Ignorance wasn’t a viable defence for civic leaders’ lack of action. By 1900, health officials were very familiar with Samonella enterica typhi, the bacteria that caused typhoid, and how to combat it. They were fully aware that the most common form of transmission was drinking water polluted by human sewage. They also knew that chlorine could be used as a disinfectant, rendering the water safe for consumption. Typhoid was a fully preventable disease.

In 1910, an American expert was finally called in to look at ways of improving Ottawa’s water supply. He recommended the immediate addition of hypochlorite of lime, a bactericide, as an interim remedy until a mechanical filtration plant could be constructed. Alternatively, he proposed that cleaner, albeit much more expensive, water be piped in from Lake McGregor in the Gatineau Hills. His report was shelved.

Disaster struck in early January 1911. In the space of weeks, there were hundreds of typhoid cases in the city. By the end of March, sixty people had died.  By year-end, the death toll had reached eighty seven. Even before the epidemic had run its course, the first investigation by the chief medical health officer of Ontario concluded that it was due to contaminated city water. Owing to low pressure, an emergency intake valve in Nepean Bay had been opened to raise water pressure in case of fire. The intake had sucked in raw sewage into the water mains. The source of pollution was traced to Cave Creek (now a sewer) that ran through Hintonburg, a heavily populated area which relied on outdoor privies that emptied into the creek. Blame for the epidemic was placed squarely on civic officials who had done nothing to ensure a safe water supply for Ottawa citizens. A second study concluded that had hypochlorite of lime been added to the city’s water as recommended in the 1910 study, the outbreak could have been averted.

Some modest steps were taken to address the situation. Hypochlorite of lime was finally added to the water, but various technical problems prevented the full amount of the chemical from being used. A new intake pipe was also put down in 1911 and was in use by the following April. But the water remained contaminated as a significant portion of the city’s water continued to be sourced through the old, leaky intake pipes. Although Ottawa’s engineer warned city officials that the water supply remained in a dangerous condition, nothing further was done.

Typhoid

Ottawa press statement falsely indicating the end of the 1912 typhoid epidemic—The Toronto World, 24 August 1912

In June 1912, typhoid returned to Ottawa with a vengeance. So bad were conditions that MPs were reluctant to return to Ottawa for the autumn1912 parliamentary session, and lobbied for Parliament to be shifted at least temporarily to Toronto, or even Winnipeg. More radical voices wanted Canada’s capital to be moved permanently if Ottawa could not provide government workers with clean water. The Toronto World thundered that the city was advertising itself “from Vancouver to Halifax as a pest hole of diseases.”

With the disease striking during the prime tourist season, civic and business leaders were keen to play down the extent of the problem and the underlying causes. In mid-August, a secret meeting was held between business leaders, Mayor Charles Hopewell and the city’s medical officer of health to discuss the impact of the epidemic on commerce. On 23 August, the medical officer of health announced that the “typhoid epidemic had run its course” and that the water was now safe to drink; bacteriological tests for the previous five weeks having showed “conclusively” that the water was free from contaminants and was “fit for consumption without boiling or otherwise treating it.” It was a barefaced lie. Cases of typhoid continued to occur. Tragically, there were twelve additional deaths in September and a further nineteen in October, weeks after the epidemic had supposedly ended. In total, roughly 1,400 cases of typhoid were recorded in 1912 with 98 fatalities. In November 1912, City Council self-servingly declared that it was “not legally responsible to the [typhoid] sufferers, but only morally so.” It voted a mere $3,000 to cover urgent relief needs.

This time a judicial inquiry was held into the two epidemics. An investigation by provincial authorities indicated continued gross contamination of the water notwithstanding what the medical officer of health had said. It was also shown that contamination occurred due to leaks in both old and new pipes. The city engineer was suspended and Ottawa’s medical officer of health resigned. Although there was insufficient evidence to indict Mayor Hopewell, his reputation was ruined. He declined to run again as mayor in the 1912 election. In 1914, the provincial board of health concluded that “after careful investigations” the outbreaks of typhoid fever were “caused by the use of sewage-polluted water from the Ottawa River.” It added that it was “a disgraceful fact that up to the present date no satisfactory plan for a pure supply for that city has been adopted.”

While repairs were made to the intake pipes and the water was treated with ammonia and chlorine, it was only a temporary fix to Ottawa’s water woes. A permanent solution had to wait almost twenty years as debate raged on city council and in the courts between those that supported the purification of Ottawa River water and the “Lakers” who wanted to pipe in clean water from 31-Mile Lake or Lake Pemichangan north of the city in the Gatineau Hills. Construction on the Lemieux Island Water Purification Plant finally began in 1928. When the plant opened three years later, Ottawa finally had safe tap water.

Sources:

Bourque, André, 2013. City of Ottawa Lemieux Island Water Purification Plant (82 Years Young and Going Strong), Atlantic Canada Water & Wastewater Association, http://acwwa.ca/conferences/2013confpresentations/category/89-ch2m-hill-city-of-ottawa-lemieux-island-water-purification-plant-82-years-young-and-going-strong.html.

City of Ottawa, 2014. Lemieux Island Water Purification Plant, http://ottawa.ca/en/residents/water-and-environment/drinking-water-and-wells/lemieux-island-water-purification-plant.

H2O Urban, 2008. Ottawa Report, 22 November, http://www.water.ca/sr-ottawa.asp.

Jacangelo, Joseph G. and Trussell, R. Rhodes, 2009. “International Report: Water and Wastewater Disinfection: Trends, Issues and Practices,” http://netedu.xauat.edu.cn/jpkc/netedu/jpkc2009/szylyybh/content/wlzy/7/5/IR_Disinfection.pdf.

Lloyd, Sheila, 1979. “The Ottawa Typhoid Epidemics of 1911 and 1912: A Case Study of Disease as a Catalyst for Urban Reform,” Urban History Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, p. 66-89, http://www.erudit.org/revue/uhr/1979/v8/n1/1019391ar.pdf.

Murray, Mathew, 2012. Dealing with Wastewater and Water Purification from the Age of Early Modernity to the Present: An Inquiry Into the Management of the Ottawa River, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of Ottawa, https://www.ruor.uottawa.ca/bitstream/10393/23066/3/Murray_Matthew_2012_thesis.pdf.

Ottawa Riverkeeper, 2007. Notes on a Water Quality and Pollution History of the Ottawa River, file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/riverpollutionhistory.pdf.

Provincial Board of Health, 1914. 1913 Annual Report, http://scans.library.utoronto.ca/pdf/4/40/ontariodepthealth1913ontauoft/ontariodepthealth1913ontauoft.pdf.

The Citizen, 1912. “City’s Responsible for Typhoid Claims,” 12 November.

—————–, 1913. “Harsh Condemnation of Ottawa’s Civic Government by Members of Commons in Discussing Pollution of Streams Bill,” 26 April.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1953. “History of Ottawa’s Water System Long and Bloody One,” 28 April.

The Evening Telegram, 1907. “Earl Grey’s Daughter Dead,” 4 February.

The Toronto World, 1912. “M.P.’s Afraid To Go To Ottawa,” 5 August.

——————-, 1912, “Typhoid Epidemic in Ottawa Nearly Over,” 24 August.