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Dr. Frederick Montizambert – Pioneer of Public Health

For the week of Monday October 30, 2011

On November 2, 1929, Doctor Frederick Montizambert died in Ottawa. Throughout his lifetime, this physician worked to make Canada a healthier country by reducing the transmission of dangerous and contagious diseases.

Sketch of Dr. Montizambert
© Irma Coucill (used with the permission of The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame)
Frederick Montizambert was born in on February 3, 1843 to an upper middle-class family in Quebec. After studying medicine at Université Laval from 1859-61, he travelled to the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1863, where he began practising clinical medicine. In 1865, he returned to Canada, and, a year later, he became assistant physician at the quarantine station on Grosse-Île.

Located in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, this station had been constructed in 1832 to deal with a wave of cholera among immigrants who were entering the port of Québec, the most significant port of entry for most immigrants to Canada at this time. In 1847, the somewhat effective station was overwhelmed by huge numbers of Irish immigrants fleeing famine. With these malnourished immigrants came the threat of typhus, and an epidemic soon swept through the ships, and into the already overcrowded quarantine station. For two decades, the infrastructure, built in haste during the crisis, fell progressively into disrepair. 

General view of a 19th century building, Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site of Canada
© Parks Canada

When Dr. Montizambert, at the young age of 26, rose to the position of medical director of Grosse-Île in 1869, expansion and renovation were his first priorities. By using his revolutionary knowledge of diseases to improve quarantine procedures, he was able to drastically reduce the mortality rate of new immigrants, thereby protecting all Canadians. Later in life, he extended his medical expertise to the rest of Canada, becoming the superintendent of all Canadian quarantine stations in 1894, and the head of the newly created public health section of the Department of Agriculture in 1899. In this latter position, he instituted new measures to fight tuberculosis, and he pushed for funding of new bacteriological laboratories. He also strongly supported the creation of a Federal Department of Public Health, which was created in 1919.

Dr. Montizambert received many national and international honours for his work. These include, among other things, a member of the Imperial Service Order in 1903, a companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George in 1916, and a member of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 2001. Dr. Frédérick Montizambert was designated a National Historic Person in 1998. Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site of Canada was designated in 1984.

For more information on Grosse-Île, please read our archived This Week in History story “Grosse Île,” or consult its entries on the Parks Canada website and HistoricPlaces.ca.

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