The splendour and misery of urban life

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Montreal. St. George (Mayor Hingston) and the dragon (small pox), 1876
Henri Julien
1876, 19th century
Ink on newsprint - Photolithography
39.9 x 27.7 cm
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Allegory (67) , Print (10661)
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Keys to History

Between 1872 and 1885 the city of Montreal was struck by a series of smallpox epidemics. William Hales Hingston (1829-1907), a doctor and surgeon by training, played a leading role in caring for the victims. From 1875 to 1877, while serving as Montreal's mayor, he sought to improve living conditions and thus the health of Montrealers. He reformed the city's sanitation system in 1876, notably by making the health department a permanent organization.

In the late 1870s the discoveries of Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) in the field of bacteriology had a major impact on the treatment and prevention of disease. During the smallpox epidemic of 1885, it became obligatory for Montrealers to be vaccinated. But because at the time not all doctors had mastered the techniques of immunization, the smallpox vaccination sometimes actually spread the disease. With some doctors refusing to administer the vaccination, a riot broke out. Hingston was an outspoken advocate of public vaccinations.

This cartoon shows the mayor of Montreal, William Hales Hingston (1829-1907), as St. George. According to legend, St. George was an officer of the Roman army who fought a dragon that was terrifying the inhabitants of a city in Libya and threatening to kill the king's daughter. St. George is generally shown seated on a horse, slaying the dragon. In this cartoon by Henri Julien (1852-1908), the dragon symbolizes smallpox.

  • What

    Smallpox is an infectious disease spread by droplets from the nose and throat and by dried viral particles on blankets and clothing. Before the advent of the smallpox vaccination, this dreaded disease, also known as variola, could kill from 30 to 40 percent of those who contracted it.

  • Where

    In the late 19th century the population of the city of Montreal shot up, mostly as a result of industrialization. The city had a high mortality rate, due in large part to its poor sanitary conditions.

  • When

    In Quebec responsibility for the fight against disease fell to municipalities before 1887 and the creation of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health, a provincial body.

  • Who

    Hingston, one of the best known surgeons in Canada at this time, received numerous honorary awards towards the end of his career, both in Canada and abroad. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1895.