The drama of the quarantine
The Lazaretto is the last surviving witness to the events of 1847 on Grosse Île.
Pierrette Boulet Collection
Needless to say, Grosse Île was very poorly equipped to deal with such an influx of sick people and so-called healthy passengers. The latter had to be kept under observation on the island if ever they had come in contact with the sick during the voyage. To handle all these people, Dr. George M. Douglas, the station’s medical superintendent, had only 200 beds for the sick and some 800 for healthy arrivals. The inadequacy of these facilities, coupled with the shortage of medical and nursing staff, became sorely apparent in mid-May, when the first four immigrant vessels forced to land at Grosse Île put ashore 285 sick passengers and 1200 others.
This flood of passengers on to the island increased precipitously, to the point that by the end of May, 1300 patients were crammed into every available building. Meanwhile, on the ships, an equivalent number of sick could not be landed for want of beds or shelters. A total of over 12 000 people were held on the island; the situation verged on anarchy. The arrival of additional medical staff and hundreds of army tents did little to alleviate these calamitous conditions. Only by means of an intensive campaign to build more hospitals and shelters on the island was it possible to gradually bring the situation back under control on Grosse Île. In June and July, priority was given to landing, housing and treating the sick. Then, in August and September, the “healthy” immigrants, many of whom fell ill and died, were moved out of the insalubrious tents. They were accommodated in a dozen huge wooden sheds erected at the eastern end of the island.
Paradoxically, it was at the end of the sailing season, as the need fell off, that the quarantine services finally attained the level so urgently required. The western part of the island now had a number of hospitals, with facilities for 2000 patients, while at the other end of the island, 300 convalescent patients and 3500 healthy immigrants could be accommodated “in comfort.” Kitchens, laundries, staff quarters, residences and various homes and other buildings had also been erected; the dreadful months had worked gradual but deep changes in Grosse Île.
Origin and context of the project
Quarantine and public health
1847, year of tragedy
Canadian immigration in Québec City during the years of the Grosse Île quarantine station