Malaria on the Rideau Canal, Ontario, Canada
Cholera Epidemics in Ottawa / Bytown, 1832,
Other 19th Century Diseases
Time Series Source: John Taylor, Ottawa: An Illustrated History
(methodology described on page 212)
August 3, 2015:
From A Darkened House: Cholera in Ninteenth-Century Canada by Geoffrey Bilson,
Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1980, pages 161-62. (Book Review by Michael Farley,
Université de Montréal). Read it here.
The growing audience for the social history of medicine in
Canada will no doubt be pleased to learn that the cholera
epidemics that disrupted nineteenth-century Canadian society
have become the subject of a major study, the result of
which is Geoffrey Bilson's A Vankdndd Houubz.
The history of cholera in British North America is essentially
the history of the five major epidemics that raged through
the colonies, the first being that of 1832, with the last
major outbreak occuring in 1854. Linked with the arrival of
the emigrant hoats, the disease had its most disastrous effect
in urban centres. With a cure not readily available in
the era before the acceptance of the germ theory of disease,
and sanitary technology still several decades away, the
treatment of cholera largely meant policing the population
through quarantine, hospitalization and public hygiene.
Given the high mortality rates and the conflict of opinion
concerning the sources and consequent measures needed to
deal with the epidemics, cholera incited the intervention
of many social groups and institutions such as the medical
profession, the church, and municipal and colonial governments.
Thus, the effects of cholera and its politics on
social conditions in the colony form the central focus of
March 19, 2002:
In 1832 a double calamity struck the Irish labourers in Bytown (now Ottawa):
1. the Rideau Canal construction ended leaving most of the men unemployed, and
2. a major cholera epidemic spread from Ireland to Grosse Isle to Bytown causing
hundreds of deaths resulting in tragedies to many individual families.
The local labour market and social order was thrown into chaos. There was no unemployment
insurance, welfare or municipal relief. Hundreds of young Irish Catholic men with
families to support scrambled to find the only work they could do well – manual labour.
Many of them were forced to emigrate to other canal projects in the United States, USA.
As well, the few local jobs created at the various Rideau Canal lock stations in the
Bytown area were patronage positions which were mostly filled by Protestants.
The health system was overloaded. Since cholera is contagious and normally kills half
of its victims, there was fear in Uppertown that their sector of society might be
affected as well. Accordingly, a twenty-bed military hospital which had been established
in 1827 to serve the members of Colonel By's Corps of Engineers was temporarily made
available to civilian doctors and patients for emergency use only. It's efforts were
co-ordinated by a local municipal board and was located near the present site of
An isolation hospital (a microcosm of Grosse Isle) was established on Sussex Street in
Lowertown. It had its own "Cholera Wharf" below the first set of locks where the Rideau
Canal empties into the Ottawa River. Immigrants coming by steamboat from Montreal or
Kingston, via the newly-opened Rideau Canal, were intercepted and quarantined. The
desperate local Irish inhabitants tried to prevent new arrivals from disembarking at
the cholera wharf in an effort to prevent new occurrences of the disease from entering
Aside from the municipal board / hospital, the only other institution available to serve
the local Catholic population was Notre Dame Church. From its inception in 1826 it was in
disarray due to internal squabbling between its Irish and French parishioners and was plagued
by weak, and sometimes scandalous leadership. However, whatever their failings, the priests
did manage to keep accurate records of births, marriages and deaths beginning in 1829. These
records, available at the National Archives, are a chronicle of early deaths from cholera,
childbirth, infant mortality and violence. The marriage records indicate a high rate of
second or third marriages as large families struggled to regroup into two-parent families
in those turbulent times.
Source: The Welfare of Irish Catholics in Ottawa, 1820-1900 by Allan W. Lewis,
April 23, 2002:
During the construction of the Rideau Canal, 1826-1832, malaria was common.
May 1, 2002:
From today's Ancestry Daily News
"CHILDHOOD DISEASES IN THE VICTORIAN AGE, PART II: THE VICTIMS,"
by Karen Frisch
"From outbreaks of diarrhea that claimed countless infants to the
dreaded cholera that destroyed the flesh, the lives of Victorian
children were endangered with each new epidemic.
In the nineteenth century more young people succumbed to consumption,
or tuberculosis, than all other diseases. A disease that destroyed
the lungs, consumption was transmitted by sprays from the respiratory
tracts of infected people or from infected cows. Affecting those
between ages five and thirty, it often occurred in urban areas after
extended contact with an infected person. Symptoms included fever,
weight loss, night sweats, and fatigue. Its hallmarks were a
persistent cough, chest pain, and, later, coughing up blood. Those in
the early stages could be cured with rest, fresh air, and sunshine.
Consumption was originally blamed on short sleeves and low-necked
Note: The Royal Ottawa Sanitorium on Carling Avenue was originally built
to serve as a hospital for Tuberculosis patients exclusively and served
this purpose until the 1940's. ... Al
Another major killer was whooping cough, the most deadly of the
infectious diseases. An acute disease that usually affected children,
it involved an inflamed respiratory tract and prolonged coughing
spasms that end in violent gasping as the victims attempt to catch
their breath--hence the whoop.
One of the most hideous diseases was cholera. Usually fatal, cholera
resulted in violent diarrhea and vomiting with muscular cramps,
chills, pain, fever, and circulatory failure ending in collapse.
Striking infants and young children as well as adults, the disease
worsened in sultry weather. Victims often died within hours from
diarrhea and dehydration. The body would swell and decay so rapidly
after death that burial was often immediate. Cholera outbreaks
affected America in 1832, 1849, 1866, and 1873, with many smaller
outbreaks throughout the century. Asiatic cholera in Boston in 1854
left many dead in a very short period.
Typhoid fever was an acute infectious disease acquired by drinking
infected milk or water. Symptoms included high lingering fever and
intestinal discomfort, chills, diarrhea, and prostration. At the end
of the first week rosy spots appeared on the chest and abdomen.
During the Spanish-American War in 1898 one-fifth of American troops
developed typhoid fever.
Deadly and highly infectious, diphtheria affected children
especially, striking the upper respiratory system. It was spread
through saliva and through touch, with bacilli entering the body by
the mouth and nose. Bacteria attacked the walls of the nose and
throat five days after exposure. Those who survived might be
temporarily paralyzed in the eyes, legs, or one side of the body.
Acute and contagious, scarlet fever also attacked through the nose or
mouth. It was transmitted by direct contact, through utensils used by
an infected person, or by infected milk. Common in children aged two
through ten, it occurred in winter or late spring mostly to fair-
skinned people. Symptoms included headache, sore throat, and
vomiting, followed by a tongue rash and high fever. It subsided after
five days, after which the skin peeled.
The hallmark of smallpox was a skin eruption that left permanent
scarring. Caused by a virus, smallpox left its victims with severe
chills, pain in the back and limbs, intense headache, vomiting, and
fever. On the third day a rash began on the face.
Measles was deadly in the nineteenth century. Also caused by a virus,
it was characterized by small red spots on the skin, an aversion to
light, nasal discharge, coughing, and a high fever.
Yellow fever, also called the black vomit or the miasmas, was spread
by mosquitoes. It destroyed the liver and kidneys, its telltale mark
being jaundiced skin. An outbreak hit Philadelphia in 1793 and New
Orleans in 1853. When 5,000 died in Memphis in 1878, more than half
its residents left the city.
For most of these diseases, no cause was discovered or vaccine
developed until the 1880s at the earliest. Taking a closer look at
your ancestors might help you uncover unexpected causes of death."
June 23, 2002:
The following is a transcription from a monument in Kingston, Ontario.
It was posted by Ruth Carr to the Eastern Ontario History and Genealogy List
At St. Mary's R.C. Cemetery, Kingston, there is a beautiful white stone
'Angel' dedicated to the victims of the fever and a plaque which reads:
"The Typhus Epidemic 1847"
"Though Typus had been epidemic periodically in Canada since the 1650's, the
worst outbreak occurred in the summer of 1847. In that year some 90,000
emigrants embarked for Canada, most of them refugees from the potato famine
then ravaging Ireland. Nearly 16,000 died of typhus, either at sea or after
their arrival in Canada. Those stricken while passing through Kingston
found shelter in makeshift 'immigrant sheds' erected near the waterfront.
Despite the efforts of local religious and charitable organizations, notably
the Sisters of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph and the ladies of
the Female Benevolent Society, some 1400 immigrants died. Buried near the
present general hospital, their remains were re-interred here in 1966."
E-mail Al Lewis
Back to "Bytown or Bust" - History and Genealogy in the Ottawa area
Bytown or Bust is also on