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Looking back: Smallpox vaccinations on the S.S. Bruce


Melissa Samms is a local history enthusiast with their fingers in several pies. They studied at MUNL and CNA before moving back home to Codroy Valley, where they help with community development and project coordination. They can be reached by email at: Melissa.samms@gmail.com.

As we’ve been going through the last year and a half of a pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about our region’s reaction and role in medicine as the gateway to the rest of the island. We’re certainly no stranger to illness here – Port aux Basques was lauded as a great fundraiser in the fight against Tuberculosis – and the industries here have been a tool to fight illness. There was one illness that was feared above all: Smallpox.

There are very few of us now that would remember the effects of smallpox and the fear that accompanied it, but the reality of it isn’t particularly far removed. While the events I want to talk about occurred in 1903, it’s important to keep in mind that Smallpox was not eradicated in Canada until 1946, and it took until 1979 for it to be eradicated globally.

One tool that the Newfoundland government used in the fight against Smallpox was its fleet of marine vessels. At the time, coastal medical boats were common, where variolations and vaccinations were made available during outbreaks and vaccination drives. People were very eager to receive their vaccination, especially for their children, because Smallpox had a 30 per cent fatality rate, and that was almost guaranteed if it was the malignant or hemorrhagic variations of the disease.

In 1903, the S.S. Bruce showed another example of the importance of vaccination as a preventative measure. In April the vessel had to be quarantined in Placentia, along with several houses on shore, because a passenger showed signs of Smallpox. Mrs. H. Brown was examined by Dr. Brehm and she was brought ashore to the Smallpox hospital by a Stewart Fardy, where both stayed for quarantine and treatment. The boat they used to reach shore was subsequently burned and the ferry was kept under the eye of no less than three watchmen at all times.

They stayed in Placentia for several days, vaccinating passengers and people in the community while waiting for symptoms to show. When none did, the vessel was released back into service.

The government must have taken notice because it was barely six months later when vaccinations were held aboard the S.S. Bruce in Port aux Basques. These injections started in October 1903 for residents and entrants to the country alike. These early vaccines left a scar at the injection site, which was often used as an indicator by authorities that an individual had received a shot and was thus safe to grant entry.

Public health has always been a serious concern for the government and for local residents. We have historically taken our responsibilities as members of the public very seriously, and I hope we continue to do so – and wouldn’t it be neat to get a vaccine on a ship!

Sources (accessible through the Digital Archive Initiative at MUNL at collections.mun.ca):

Wilson Vardy’s 1903 logbook

Evening Telegram 1 and 3 April 1903

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