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Racey Family Fonds (P057)

Excerpt from a biographical account written by Susannah Withington Wise (1814-1883) (detail), 1848 or 1849. Racey Family Fonds P057, P057/B,1.1 © McCord Museum

The deadly summer of 1847

"Fever first broke out at the quarantine station at Grosse Isle, and afterwards was conveyed to Quebec by those who landed apparently healthy or convalescent[.] [A]ll who had an opportunity of witnessing the scenes of horror presented among the sick and dying, declare it to be beyond the powers of language to convey an idea of the reality, the means of accommodation were so inadequate to the crowds of sufferers. The Emigrant hospital was filled to over-flowing, and temporary sheds were erected near it, so that instead of about 350 (the number for which the hospital is intended) about 1,100 poor creatures were in it at once, and such was the dread of infection that sufficient nurses could not be obtained, at one time 20 of the attendants were ill together. [...] [A]t this time two additional medical men were appointed, one of them was dear Papa, there was however no salary attached to the office, and in consequence of this circumstance the gentlemen who had been appointed with papa, resigned the situation, thus leaving the main burden to be sustained by Papa [...]"

History has well documented the suffering experienced by the many Irish immigrants who arrived in North America in the mid-19th century following a trans-Atlantic crossing marked by malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, disease and death. From May to October 1847, nearly 100,000 individuals, most of them Irish, left the British Isles for Quebec. Of this number, over 17,000 died of disease (primarily typhus and dysentery), either during the crossing, during the quarantine or upon arriving in their newly adopted city.

The account written by Susannah Withington Wise provides a unique perspective on the tragedy: that of the medical staff. She describes how her husband, physician John Racey (whom she calls "Papa" in this story addressed to her children), was committed to caring for the new Irish immigrants during the terrible typhus epidemic of 1847. The Marine and Emigrant Hospital, which opened in Quebec City in 1834 specifically to accommodate immigrants, was where Racey ministered to the sick who had been prematurely discharged from the Grosse Isle quarantine station. His dedication would prove to be fatal as the young physician died of typhus on October 25, 1847, at the age of 38.

P057 Racey Family Fonds. - [1802-1964]. - 6.5 cm of textual records.

Biographical Sketch

Born in Quebec City, John Racey (1809-1847) was the son of John Racey, a Quebec City brewer, and Sarah Robinson. He studied medicine in Montreal and then in Edinburgh, where he worked at the Cholera Hospital as a surgeon. Returning to Montreal in 1833, he taught anatomy and surgery for two years at the McGill University Faculty of Medicine, founded four years earlier. That same year, he also married Susannah Withington Wise (1814-1883), the daughter of Joseph Wise (about 1786-1816), a Quebec City merchant born in Croydon, England, and Margaret Robinson (about 1791-?). The couple had five children: John, who also became a physician, Susanna Cooke, Margaret Sarah, Joseph Robert and George Wise.

In 1835, John Racey returned to Quebec City to practise medicine. He went into practice with Dr. James Douglas in 1846. During the summer of 1847, Quebec City was hit by a typhus epidemic brought over by new immigrants suffering from the fever. The disease claimed thousands of victims, especially among the Irish immigrant population. Working in the Marine and Emigrant Hospital and the nearby temporary sheds, Dr. Racey treated between 500 and 600 patients per day. Like many people who tended the sick, he himself contracted typhus and died in October of the same year.

Scope and Content

The fonds primarily covers the life and medical practice of John Racey during the first half of the 19th century. It also documents the personal and professional activities of some of the physician's family members, notably his wife, Susannah Withington Wise, and his father-in-law, Joseph Wise.

It contains several versions of an account of the life of John Racey, along with various genealogical and biographical documents about the physician, his family, and the family of his wife, Susannah Withington Wise.

There are also letters from Susannah Withington Wise chronicling her relationship with her aunts Eliza and Hannah, as well as transcriptions of letters from Joseph Wise, addressed primarily to his parents. In addition, passages transcribed from the latter's diary document some of his travels and business ventures in the West Indies. Finally, the fonds contains excerpts from the memoirs of Reverend John Pilkington (1690-1774), transcribed by Susanna Withington Wise.

Source of title proper: Title based on the creators of the fonds.

Physical description: Some documents are photocopies.

Language: The documents are in English.

Finding aids: There is a handwritten inventory of the documents containing some historical and biographical information.

Associated material:

BAnQ: Documents about John Racey are preserved in several archival collections and fonds of the BAnQ, namely the Fonds Cour supérieure. District judiciaire de Québec. Greffes d'arpenteurs. (Québec) (CA301) and the Collection Centre d'archives de Québec (P1000).

Champlain Harbour Station: Fonds Hôpital de la Marine.

Related groups of records: The McCord Museum's Arthur George Racey Collection (C267) contains documents associated with the work of this cartoonist who was the son of John Racey (1834-1906) and the grandson of John Racey (1809-1847).

The fonds is divided into the following series, sub-series, and files:

  • P057/A History and Genealogy

  • P057/B John Racey
    • P057/B,1 Biographical account. - [ca 1848-1964]. - 2 cm of textual records.
      Digitized documents

      Scope and Content:
      This file documents the personal and family life of John Racey, his work as a physician, and the circumstances surrounding his death. It is composed primarily of the original handwritten version of a biographical account written by his widow Susanna Withington Wise in 1848 or 1849, as well as a typewritten copy of this account dated 1964 that includes an introductory note signed by A. E. Washer.
    • Organized chronologically, Susanna Withington Wise's account begins by tracing the major educational milestones of her husband, who began studying medicine with Dr. Caldwell in Montreal before continuing his studies in Edinburgh, Scotland. It describes John Racey's trips to England and France to hone his practice, chronicling the unrest gripping in the city of Paris where he stayed for a time in the fall of 1831. It also relates the cholera epidemic that hit Scotland in December of that year, during which Racey, who had returned to Edinburgh, worked tirelessly to help the victims. The account then looks at the young doctor's personal and professional life. After graduating and coming back to Canada, he began his career working at the Montreal General Hospital and teaching anatomy at McGill University. In its final chapter, the story describes the terrible typhus epidemic of 1847 that struck Quebec City, where Racey and his family had moved, brought over by new immigrants infected with the bacteria. It chronicles how Racey's dedication to caring for the sick who had been prematurely discharged from the Grosse Isle quarantine station would prove to be fatal as the young physician died of typhus on October 25, 1847, at the age of 38.

      Susanna Withington Wise wrote this account for her children to preserve the memory of their young father, whom she calls "Papa" throughout. The biographical format provides a framework onto which she weaves an admiring portrait of her husband that consistently emphasizes his kind and gentle nature. She describes him as a role model, presenting him as a scholarly, persevering, hard-working student, driven by the constant desire to improve. To demonstrate how everyone thought very highly of him, her text includes transcriptions of testimonials that Racey had received, like a letter from Reverend Esson, with whom he studied at the Montreal Academical Institution, and commendatory letters praising his virtues and humanity towards his patients during the Edinburgh cholera epidemic.

      In addition, the file contains a photocopy of a handwritten transcription of the account, done by Margaret Sarah Racey, that contains some additional information about the death of Susanna Withington Wise. This document also incorporates transcriptions of prose and verse texts, including a poem composed by Susanna shortly after her husband's death and a text in which she expresses her final wishes.

      Source of title proper: Based on the contents of the file.

      Language: The documents are in English.

      • P057/B,2 Death

  • P057/C Wise Family
    • P057/C1 Susannah Wise
    • P057/C2 Joseph Wise
    • P057/C3 Reverend John Pilkington
    • Scope and Content: This subseries focusses on Reverend John Pilkington, who lived in Lancashire, England, from 1690 to 1774. It is composed of selections from his memoirs, copied into a notebook by his descendant Susanna Withington Wise, and typewritten notes about the notebook's origins.

      The first page of the notebook bears the title "Selections from the Memoirs of the life of my great great grandfather, the Revd. John Pilkington, who was born March 26th 1690 at Bolton in Lancashire and died in 1774 at Walton le Dale, in the same county, where he had resided upward of 50 years." Of a religious nature, the text is dotted with biblical references and passages. Taken out of context, the excerpts selected by Susanna Withington Wise resemble ruminations or a sermon, rather than a veritable memoir. These reflections discuss moral dispositions, virtuous behaviours and how to approach religious practice. For example, Pilkington criticizes the lack of enthusiasm demonstrated by some regular churchgoers: "Our attendance upon divine appointments should be early, regular, serious. I have observed the practice of some to be such, as if they were afraid of being at the beginning of the service, have a custom of coming late when the service is begun rather than come in, not considering how they disturb others. Some by their drowsy sleepy behaviour show the service is not pleasant or entertaining to them." In the Reverend's opinion, while the pursuit of pleasure is not prohibited, such efforts must be for noble purposes and may originate in religious practice. He does not hesitate, for example, to revel in the beauty of nature heightened by the resurgence of spring, which he believes can lead to religious feelings. At the same time, he criticizes the quest for sensual gratifications and frivolous distractions, like games of chance and horse racing, whose pleasures vanish quickly, bringing nothing but disappointment and dissatisfaction. As a whole, these selections reflect on the role of appetites and inclinations that, although they are very human characteristics, must nonetheless, in Reverend Pilkington's opinion, remain controlled by reason and religion.

      The author of the typewritten notes (one of John Racey and Susanna Withington Wise's great-grandchildren) uses the handwritten notes added later to the first page of the notebook to trace its origins. According to this writer, the Memoirs of John Pilkington were preserved by the Reverend's grandson, Joseph Beeby Wise. Susanna Withington Wise, the latter's granddaughter, later transcribed these selections. A handwritten note in the notebook says it was "given to Harriet S. Racey by her father in 1904."

      Source of title proper: Based on the contents of the subseries.

      Language: The documents are in English.

      • P057/C3.1 Excerpts from the memoirs of Reverend John Pilkington. - [before 1883-after 1904]. - 1 textual record ; 17.8 x 11 cm.
        Digitized document

        Scope and Content:
        This notebook chronicles the life of Reverend John Pilkington, who lived in Lancashire, England, from 1690 to 1774. It contains excerpts from his memoirs selected and copied by his descendant Susanna Withington Wise on an unknown date, as well as several handwritten annotations added in 1869 and after 1904.

        Source of title proper: Based on the contents of the record.

        Language: The document is in English.


Last update: February 15, 2019