Major Papers


Smallpox, Vaccination, Montreal, Sectional Violence, Vaccine refusal


Montreal was stricken by an epidemic of smallpox in the year 1885 which resulted in over 3,000 deaths and which lasted 15 months. The disease was brought into the city by a pullman conductor arriving on a train from Chicago. The city of Montréal Health Department was confident that they would be able to manage the initial outbreak easily because by 1885 smallpox was considered to be a vaccine preventable disease. Unfortunately, many errors were made by the Health Department in the initial outbreak that allowed the disease to escape into the city of Montreal, where it was greatly aided by the already considerable vaccine noncompliance of many of the city’s francophone working class residents. For various reasons, vaccine resistance was high amongst the working-class francophone population, who as a result contracted the majority of smallpox cases and represented the vast majority of smallpox related deaths.

By contrast anglophones and upper and middle-class francophones complied with vaccination and did not contract or die from smallpox. I argue that errors committed by the Health Department were exacerbated in both press-language environments, with the English-language press being uncritical of the Health Department even in the face of serious errors such as continuing to vaccinate with a supply of vaccine that likely was contaminated. The English language press was also critical of the francophone working-class to the point of being anti-francophone, without an understanding that health regulations served as significant barriers for the working-class. The French-language press by contrast was considerably more critical of the Health Department especially around the erysipelas outbreak. Together the two press environments caused a situation which had the probable effect of fueling vaccine refusal in the francophone working class community, prolonging the epidemic and increasing the death toll.

Primary Advisor

Miriam Wright

Program Reader

Steven Palmer

Degree Name

Master of Arts



Document Type

Major Research Paper

Convocation Year