Public Health Scares: Looking to Our Past for Perspective

In light of the COVID-19 Pandemic, we decided to look at some of the public health concerns in Vankleek Hill’s past.  Some of these include smallpox, diphtheria, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, typhus, and chickenpox. We wondered, how was their dangerous presence in the community managed?

In 1808, the first municipal council for West Hawkesbury was formed, when Vankleek Hill was still a hamlet within the township. The first duties taken on by council in 1808 were to ensure good fences to control livestock, and to maintain roads, then known as pathways.
Some of the first by-laws to ensure health and safety centered on the importance of safeguarding well-water. For example, by-laws came into effect to control backyard animal slaughter. Many homes had large yards in the 19th century, and so you could raise your pig, cow or chickens, and slaughter them, in your backyard. This new by-law made the owner responsible for removing and properly disposing of the remains. It came about because residents became careless and left the offal to rot at the end of their yards, giving neighbours concern about contamination of their next-door wells.

Since there was no social safety net in those first years, and certainly no health coverage like we have today, the council also did work to help struggling community members. It was not lost on the elected council that it is the human condition that some of us are left behind from time to time as others prosper. Within early council minutes, there are recorded decisions to assist residents known to be in dire circumstances, either due to poverty, illness, abandonment or old age. They are issued with municipal credit to particular general store accounts for the purchase of set quantities of meat or firewood, particularly in the winter months.

But when faced with an issue such as public health, a larger network with more clout is required. Local public health services for Ontario were established in 1833 when the Legislature of Upper Canada passed an Act allowing municipalities “to establish Boards of Health to guard against the introduction of malignant, contagious and infectious disease in this province.” Only in the 1880s was the first Provincial Board of Health formed to promote personal hygiene and to push to eradicate infectious diseases. In 1919, this isolated provincial body became part of the Department of Labour, and finally in 1924 the Department of Health was formed.
The Vankleek Hill Museum has the Minute Book for the Vankleek Hill Board of Health meetings dating from 1902 to 1946. At the first meeting on January 27, 1902 we see that the Board members include Dr. J. McIntosh along with business owner & Mayor William Ogden, general store owners Charles Northcott & E.Z. Labrosse, carriage-maker Noë Matte, and Clerk Fred Thistlethwaite as secretary.

The focus of Municipal Boards of Health was to monitor and make recommendations to council regarding public health issues, including water quality and sanitation. In February 1902, the Vankleek Hill Board of Health prepared its expenditures to send to the municipal council following an outbreak of smallpox. The expenses tell us that medical attention, medicine, and care including food were provided at public expense.

“Moved by Charles Northcott, Seconded by Fred Thistlethwaite: That the following accounts re Small Pox be adopted and paid by the Municipal Council of the Town of Vankleek Hill:“Dr. J. McIntosh, medical supplies and vaccination account, $14.95; E.Z. Labrosse foods supplied $25.50 …” A list of patients and the costs: “Joseph Ladouceur 7 days guardian at $1.00 per day = $7.00; Samuel C. Mooney 35 days guardian at $1.50 per day = $52.50; Dr. J.C. Chipman, vaccination accounts $29.00 and Mrs. Peter Lajoie Nurse 32 days at .50 cents each $16.00.” Looking at the per diem charge of $1.50 for Mr. Mooney, the nurse was in attendance during his illness.

In January 1903, Grand Central Hotel owner Georges Constantineau joined the board. At the January meeting, “The question of the existing state of small pox was discussed and the action of the Medical Health Officer (Dr. McIntosh) was approved of by the Board.” In February 1903, the medical action of Dr. McIntosh became clear, and the resolution was passed, “That the following accounts re Small Pox at Hattie Dewar’s be adopted and be paid by the Municipal Council of the Town of Vankleek Hill, namely: Dr. J. McIntosh account $3.00; W.C. Sylvester & Sons (flour mill) account 1 Bag of Flour $2.05; Donald Fraser 1 quarter beef 85 lbs @5cents = $4.25; and E.Z. Labrosse Grocery account $9.00. Carried.”

Smallpox continued to be a struggle for the community for many years and finally begins to appear less in council meeting notes when in 1909, a case of “Scarlet Fever” in the home of Mr. P. Lajoie is investigated by Dr. McIntosh and the Board tells Dr. McIntosh to “order what he considers absolutely necessary in the interests of the Public Safety.” Scarlet fever is very contagious and linked to strep throat. In a nutshell, the bacteria can spread through coughing and sneezing, touching someone with impetigo, or sharing contaminated towels, baths, clothes or bed linen.

At the same meeting, the Board issued a stern resolution directed to multiple complaints, “That the secretary of this Board of Health be instructed to notify all parties against whom complaints have been made by the Health Inspector re the unsatisfactory conditions of their premises, that said premises must be cleared on or before May 24, 1909 otherwise action will be taken by this Board under the Public Health Act.” The Board often received complaints of overflowing septic systems and cesspools from neighbours concerned about their drinking wells. This next resolution may be a response to such complaints: “The Inspector handed in the following names and notices were mailed to each in accord with above resolution – Thomas Borris, James Taylor, Jos. B. Taylor, Madame Jos. Lauzon, C.S. Northcott, James Hurley, L. Stephens, James Harkin, E. Elvridge, J. McRae, J.A. Haspeck, Felix Matte, Mrs. D. Morrison, F.B. Bowden, Bank of Ottawa, W.C. Sylvester (flour mill), N. Butler, M. McInnes.” There is a follow-up in June 1910 when it is reported at the meeting that “the premises of the following parties had not been placed in a satisfactory sanitary condition – N. Butler, Grand Trunk Railway Co., John Wilson, C.S. Northcott, F. Matte…”

In March 1911, smallpox returns. High school students who lived outside Vankleek Hill boarded in town for the school-week at various homes. It was reported “That the persons who were boarding at the house of Mrs. Morrison where Small Pox has been found to exist be requested to report in person to the M.H.O. every third day for the next two weeks and that the principal of the Collegiate be requested to require that all cases of reported illness in the school be reported promptly to this Board.”

Even though there is a vaccine for smallpox, compulsory vaccination does not appear to be enforced. Cost is likely the factor at work. In 1913, there is an outbreak of the disease in the “East Ward” on Stanley Avenue. The Board discussed both vaccination and fumigation. Then they take the resolution: “That in the opinion of the Board of Health all the pupils in attendance at all the Town schools who have never been vaccinated should at once be vaccinated and that the Principals be authorized to refuse attendance to any pupils whom they have reason to suspect of  being recently exposed to the contagion and further that the vaccination of all pupils of the class in St. Mary’s Convent School to which Miss Seguin (Stanley Avenue resident) belonged be recommended forthwith and that said classroom be disinfected at once.” The follow-up reads, “On the following day, the M.O.H., the Sanitary Inspector, and the Secretary of this Board visited the Convent personally and the building was thoroughly disinfected on Saturday April 5th – the class from which the smallpox had developed being dismissed temporarily.”

In October 1915, there is an outbreak of Diphtheria, a communicable disease that hits children the hardest. It generates a thick sticky mucus along the airways making it difficult to breath, and causes heart failure, paralysis, and sometimes death. Anyone who does genealogy research will find time periods when there are clusters of child deaths from diphtheria. Today, it is controlled in the developed world by vaccination in early childhood. However, it still erupts in the developing world where vaccination rates are low. In 1914, Diphtheria quarantine is mandatory in Vankleek Hill, and the Sanitary Inspector John Ladouceur was instructed to notify “the parties who are quarantined that if it comes to the notice of the Board that they are not obeying the regulations regarding communicable diseases that the Board will take action at once.”

In 1917, WWI was raging, and The Eastern Ontario Review regularly updated reports of local men and women killed in action, injured or missing. To make matters worse, smallpox had returned to Vankleek Hill schools. Once again, the Medical Officer of Health worked with the school principals to set a time and place for “the vaccination of the pupils who come under the Vaccination Act.”

 On October 8 1918, the Medical Officer of Health called for a meeting of the Board of Health, “owing to the prevalence of the Spanish Influenza in Town.” Again, just as during the war, The Eastern Ontario Review provided weekly updates on who had contracted the Spanish Flu and who had died from it. The resolution was passed that “it is deemed advisable on the advice of the Medical Officer of Health to close the schools during the course of the epidemic of Spanish Influenza and that the different School Boards be notified to this affect.” Just as we have witnessed today, there was a clutching at straws to find anything to stem the disease. In January 1919, the Board met to authorize Dr. McIntosh “to purchase a formulaic disinfecting apparatus for the use of the Town in contagious diseases and the like.” There is no further report about this apparatus.

Though that is the last we hear about the Spanish Flu, The Board of Health continues to meet. Vaccinations appear to have stemmed outbreaks of infectious diseases. The focus in the 1920s is on establishing public “systems of sewage and waterworks.” Until a common system is established, the Board continues to receive sanitary condition complaints of overflowing septic systems. The Board prides itself on the fact that there had not been any illness derived from unsanitary water and they wish to keep it that way.

In 1928, the Board of Health recommends that slaughtering animals within town limits be discontinued. This remains a recommendation. In 1929, the Board issues an order that wells be emptied and thoroughly cleaned by June 10th. The order is printed in the Eastern Ontario Review. “Proper close-fitting covers be placed on same and any wells not in use for drinking purposes to be marked ‘Not in use for Drinking or Culinary Purpose.’” In 1930, water testing takes place, and the reports are returned “very favourably.” In 1931, the Board returns to the issue of drinking water. They issue the order, “That the wells have to be built with cement and good plank covers and fixed-up in a sanitary condition…”

In 1935, smallpox returns again. The Medical Officer of Health is Dr. McDonald who operates his hospital on Bertha Street (today a nursing home). He “reported a mild case of small pox had developed in a home on High Street, an elderly gentleman who is now convalescing and improving every day. The original case in the same house had been a pupil – Collegiate Institute. The MOH ordered all pupils in Form I of which this boy had been a member to be vaccinated forthwith. The order has been very well complied with.” All the while, the Board continues to deal with complaints of “toilet and sink water drainage,” “odours,” “septic drainage,” and “cellar flooding” caused by septic overflow.

In July 1945, Dr. G.D. McIntyre is the Medical Officer of Health, and he is present for the last meeting of the Vankleek Hill Board of Health. Also present are Mayor Edgar C. Brown, and Dr. D.S. McPhee. Dr. McIntyre reports that vaccinations against diphtheria and pertussis were given to the Public School and Separate School students in town, and to many other school age children. The plan for Dr. McIntyre to give smallpox vaccinations in the fall of 1945 was conducted by the new Health Unit of the United Counties of Prescott and Russell.

The Eastern Ontario Health Unit links its history to that 1945 date. Our Medical Officer of Health is Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, MD, CM, MPH, FRCP (C). We have all become familiar with his measured and calm informative updates during the current Covid-19 pandemic. The EOHU services are cost-shared by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas & Glengarry and Prescott-Russell, and the City of Cornwall.

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