Disease and Treatments

Labourers, contractors, and military officers were all at risk of becoming infected with malaria. The labourers’ cramped, unsanitary living quarters made them even more likely to come in contact with and perish from the disease. Larger outbreaks struck fear into the hearts of contractors struggling to finish their work on time, but it was the labourers who truly had the most to lose by getting sick. Doctors were scarce and in high demand, which meant that military officers and contractors were the first to receive medical attention when needed. Quinine, a sulphate prepared from tree bark, was considered the only effective treatment for malaria. Both incredibly expensive and hard to come by, it was typically given only to those with the ability and money necessary to obtain it.

Points of Interest

Photograph of a syringe and caseEnlarge

[Source: Syringe and Case, 1850- 1900, glass & metal, Bytown Museum, I199.]

Syringe and Case

Treatment options for diseases present on the canal were limited and generally ineffective. Doctors had few medical supplies at their disposal and in many cases treatments were inadequate due to the lack of knowledge about the root cause. Many doctors experimented with bleeding, the use of lead or mercury, and, when all else failed, prayer. Shown here is a syringe and case, which would have been one of the basic tools doctors were equipped with. In most cases, however, treatment was simply a matter of letting the illness run its course while trying to alleviate the symptoms of the victims.

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[Source: Weiss London, Surgical Tools- H. P. Hill, 1834, brass, steel, wood & ivory, Bytown Museum, I198.]

Duration: 08 seconds
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Surgical Tools

French Canadians appeared to suffer more than other labourers from a disease called charbon, or anthrax, as it is known today. Transmitted through contact with animals, charbon is a highly contagious bacterial infection that creates small lesions, usually black, on the skin surface. (Historians have compared its symptoms to those of syphilis.) Burning the lesions, and causing them to blister off, was the only known treatment option at the time, much to the chagrin of its victims. Shown here are basic surgical tools that doctors would have been equipped with to assist them in their efforts.

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[Source: Library and Archives Canada, MG24-I9, volume 37]

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Other Illnesses

As documented in the notes of self-taught resident physician Dr. A. J. Christie, venereal disease (most often gonorrhea) was quite common in the promiscuous context of frontier society. In fact, it was the most frequently treated ailment after fever and bowel disorders.

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Drawing of the Peruvian Bark plantEnlarge

[Source: Rhind, William. The History of the Vegetable Kingdom. Glasgow: Blackie, 1855. Carleton University Archives and Research Collection, RAR QK 45 R45 1855.]

Malaria Treatment

Quinine (shown here; also known as Cinchona condaminea, Jesuit root, or Peruvian bark) was the only effective treatment option for malaria. Malaria victim William Bell’s diary entry from March 1827 provides a telling account of the scarcity and exorbitant cost of quinine:

“On Monday being my well day, I was not quite so bad; but on Tuesday, O what I suffered! The shivering fit lasted all the afternoon, and was the severest I had ever experienced. Next day I was fortunate enough to get some quinine, for at this time it was so scarce that, when an ounce could be procured at Montreal, it was sent by post, and long before it arrived it was all bespoke, and even paid for. It was sometimes as high as 16 Dollars an ounce, but such was the scramble to get it, that no one complained about the price. To me, from 6 to 10 grains always producing a certain cure. Taking this quantity, it stopped the ague, and I got better every day.”

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