Plague: A Story of Smallpox in Montreal


306 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-00-215693-8
DDC 614.5'21'097142809034




Reviewed by Trevor S. Raymond

Trevor S. Raymond is a teacher and librarian with the Peel Board of Education and editor of Canadian Holmes.


To most readers of Canadian history, the year 1885 means Riel and the
last spike, but no one who reads this extraordinary work by University
of Toronto historian Michael Bliss will ever see that year the same way
again. “Canada has two wars on her hands,” the Montreal Gazette
reported that autumn: one in the Northwest and one in Montreal. Bliss,
whose previous books include The Discovery of Insulin and a biography of
Frederick Banting, has written an account of the second struggle, the
“last uncontrolled holocaust of smallpox in a modern city.” He uses
a style he says he has modelled after the notion of Truman Capote’s
nonfiction novel; since reporters in 1885 were skilled in shorthand,
Bliss is able to reproduce dialogue that was recorded at the time, and
this adds to the book’s novel-like quality. And what a story it is.

From the beginning, when a Montreal hospital refused to admit a
smallpox victim who had arrived by train from Chicago, through terrible
months when Montreal became a virtual pariah in North America (the
Americans refused to accept mail that had not been fumigated, businesses
across the continent stopped buying from Montreal, trains were stopped
at Quebec borders while authorities looked for vaccination marks) to the
final cases, Bliss tells a fascinating tale, and in the process gives a
portrait of a late nineteenth-century society, its politics, and its
people. But it is a story that never should have occurred. It was “a
relic of barbarism more primitive than any of the events on the Western
Frontier,” Bliss writes, and one is appalled at the ignorance, racism,
and decisions “catastrophic and stupid” documented in these pages.
Racism was rampant, since more than ninety percent of the victims were
French-Canadian. For a number of reasons, including rabble-rousing by
some of the colorful personalities profiled in the book, and by some of
the newspapers (from which Bliss quotes extensively), “Vaccinophobia
got reinforced by Anglophobia until for some lower-class French
Canadians hatred of the English and hatred of vaccination seemed to go
together.” Doctors who recommended vaccinations—and not all
did—were in danger. At one point, 350 Royal Scots were mobilized to
protect doctors’ homes. Shots were fired at “sanitary police.”
Some church leaders thought God was punishing Montreal for such
wickedness as the annual winter carnival. (“We have taken a false way
in building toboggan slides.”)

These deaths were preventable. Much of the Western world had smallpox
under control. Yet the official death toll from the Montreal epidemic
was 3234. Given the circumstances so dramatically described in this
book, there can be no doubt that the actual toll was much higher. In an
epilogue, Bliss describes the world’s successful campaign to eliminate
smallpox, although he leaves us with the chilling fact that two centres,
in Moscow and Atlanta, still have the virus bottled up; there have been
two deaths from it in the American labs. And, he wonders, could there be
smallpox virus hibernating in frozen bodies in the Arctic?

As a portrait of an early post-Confederation society, as a gripping
drama, and as well-documented history, Plague succeeds in every way.


Bliss, Michael., “Plague: A Story of Smallpox in Montreal,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed February 21, 2024,