The new Red Deer Memorial Hospital, 1904. (Photo from Red Deer Archives P451)

Michael Dawe: Quarantines are a common defence against diseases

The outbreak of the coronavirus has put the words “epidemic,” “pandemic” and “quarantine” into the news every day, if not every hour.

However, the concepts of quarantine – of trying to separate those ill with a communicable disease, or potentially infected with such a disease – is not a new one. There is mention of isolation to prevent the spread of disease in the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament.

The term quarantine itself comes from Venice in the 1400s, when ships and people were contained in a restricted area for 40 days to see if there was evidence of plague (Black Death) before anyone was allowed into the city.

Quarantine is derived from the Venetian expression for “40 days.”

Quarantines were common in early Canada. With large numbers of immigrants arriving, measures were undertaken to ensure any newcomers did not cause outbreaks of severe disease such as cholera and smallpox amongst the existing inhabitants.

One of the most famous of the quarantines was at Grosse Ile, in the St. Lawrence River, off the port of Quebec City. It is estimated the cemetery at Grosse Ile contains the graves of 5,000 Irish immigrants.

Quarantines were used in early Western Canada, but not on the scale such as the one at Grosse Ile. Often, people were quarantined in their homes, with their families, when there was an incidence of measles, chicken pox or scarlet fever.

At times, small buildings, or tents, were used to try and isolate those who may have been infected with a very serious contagious disease.

In many early Alberta communities, when a small building or tent was not used for quarantine, rooms were taken at a hotel, and then thoroughly fumigated after the patients were either discharged or had died. That was the situation in High River during a smallpox outbreak in 1907.

The first formal hospital between Calgary and Edmonton was constructed in Red Deer in 1903. It officially opened in early 1904 with 13 patient beds. It was named the Red Deer Memorial Hospital, in honour of three young men from Red Deer who were killed in the Boer (South African) War.

It is unclear how contagious patients were handled after the Memorial Hospital opened. However, it is recorded the first patient, W.N. Snider of Evarts, died from typhoid fever.

In 1907, the local medical officer of health, Dr. Henry George, recommended a quarantine “station” be created for the more serious contagious patients.

Consequently, the town’s (farmers’) market and health committee recommended $500 be spent to build an isolation hospital.

Because of problems in selling debenture by the town due to a North American financial crisis, the building was not constructed. However, $111.70 was still spent on “quarantines and disinfecting.”

A proposal for an isolation hospital was made again in 1908, but town council decided, instead, to turn the expenditure into a grant to the Memorial Hospital for quarantine purposes.

At the 1910 annual meeting of the Red Deer Memorial Hospital, board chair Frank Tallman made an urgent plea for the creation of an isolation hospital.

There had been a serious outbreak of typhoid fever, particularly among the Canadian Pacific Railway employees. The hospital became so swamped that the private sitting rooms for the nurses were turned into patient care rooms.

The town responded by voting to spend $1,500 to build such a facility and to furnish it. The site selected was a corner of the Exhibition Grounds, as they were largely vacant for most of the year.

Later, money was also provided to supply isolation “huts” (tents) at the hospital.

In 1912, after two smallpox patients had been treated in the isolation hospital, the building was burned to the ground. Some of the town councillors bemoaned the fact a $1,000 facility was now lost.

One councillor stated if a new “pest house” was to be built, it should be constructed next to the new nuisance grounds (town dump) on the northside of the Red Deer River.

A new isolation hospital was built, again on the Exhibition Grounds.

A major test of the facility came during the First World War, when Red Deer became a major military training centre.

A bigger one came in 1918, at the end of the war, when the devastating Spanish flu pandemic swept across Canada and caused a major loss of life in Red Deer.

To be continued.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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