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ARCHIVED - In Quarantine:
Life and Death on Grosse Île, 1832-1937

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Banner: Black and white photo collage of a young woman wearing a white blouse, two men with moustaches and suits, two women, a stone Celtic cross, and four people in matching uniforms sitting on a porch railing

The Grosse Île Quarantine Station

Staff and Services

Letter handwritten in cursive


In a letter, Montizambert asks for permission to assist at a convention by the American Public Health Association in Toronto as a Dominion delegate, 3 September, 1886

Black and white portrait photograph of a well-dressed man looking to his left


Dr. Montizambert, photographed by William James Topley, March 1869

Black and white photograph of a man in a naval uniform standing on the porch of a building


Superintendent Martineau on the porch of the medical assistant's house, ca. 1927

Black and white photograph of two men in naval uniforms standing outside


Bacteriologist Heagherty and medical assistant Walter Aylen

Black and white photograph of two men and a horse plowing a garden


Quarantine station employees cultivating the fields for their families in the centre sector of the island

Letter handwritten in cursive


Petition to Lord Dufferin, Governor General of Canada, from the widow of Charles Langois, demanding his pension, September 1874

During its years of operation, the Grosse Île quarantine station employed hundreds of people. They cared for the immigrants and ensured that the station operated smoothly during the navigation season, which ran from April to November.

The first residents were soldiers of the 32nd British Regiment, posted in Québec. Under the command of Captain H. Reid, they constructed the buildings and developed the site. The garrison was present on the island until 1857, when the British government handed over the property and operation of the quarantine station to the government of United Canada.

Between 1832 and 1857, administration of Grosse Île was the responsibility of the military authorities, while medical care was provided by civilian personnel. After 1857, the medical superintendent was fully in charge of the island. He was responsible for all administrative duties and for the services of the quarantine station. He coordinated the activities of medical staff, the station's boat crews and support staff. In 1894, he was appointed superintendent general for quarantine stations in Canada.

Three Great Superintendents

Of all the superintendents, three stand out for the length of their service: George Mellis Douglas, Frederick Montizambert and Georges-Élie Martineau, who each spent some 30 years on the island.

Dr. George Mellis Douglas, who served from 1837 until his death in 1864, had to deal with the many contagious diseases on board ship, particularly cholera in 1849 and 1854, and typhus in 1847. Despite the meagre resources at his disposal, Douglas managed to provide regular rations to the many poor and weakened immigrants who landed on the island, and to help them after a difficult crossing.

Dr. Frederick Montizambert was appointed superintendent in 1869 after three years as medical inspector. He had an excellent grasp of the purpose of quarantine and launched a modernization process to make the station more effective. Montizambert became a trailblazer in the field of bacteriology, epidemiology and scientific disinfection. In 1899, he became Canada's first director general of public health. In 1998, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recognized the national historic significance of this pioneer in the field of sanitary practices at Canada's quarantine stations.

The station's last superintendent, Dr. Georges-Élie Martineau, served after Dr. Montizambert from 1899 to 1929. His years at the station were marked by the long period of affluence that extended from 1905 to 1913, as well as the completion of the island's modernization activities.

The Medical Team

The medical staff included a medical inspector who boarded and inspected the ships to detect symptoms of contagious diseases. Once the inspection was completed, he could release the ships or place them under quarantine. The inspector also vaccinated passengers against smallpox.

Other physicians were hired to treat the hospital patients. Their numbers varied depending on the season and the number of patients. In 1847, there were about 30 doctors at the station to care for immigrants suffering from typhus and dysentery. The first bacteriologist was hired in 1911 to work in the new laboratory in the east sector of the island. He confirmed diagnoses by analyzing fluid and tissue samples taken from the sick and from persons who could be carrying the disease.

The nursing staff consisted of lay people. Prior to 1920, these men and women had no formal training, and they developed their skills by working with the doctors in the treatment rooms. They carried out a range of duties, such as distributing meals, disinfecting rooms, cleaning and changing the patients' clothing and bedding, and watching for symptoms that would require medical intervention. The men also chopped wood, carried water and dug graves in the cemetery.

Working at Grosse Île was not without its risks. By working directly with the contagious patients, the nursing staff ran a high risk of contracting diseases, and many of them died as a result.

Support Staff

A core team at Grosse Île saw to the smooth operation of the hospital and the station. The steward in charge of supplies and accounts also supervised the disinfection of the premises, people and goods, as well as the burying of the dead. A cook prepared meals in the hospital.

The laundress had the difficult task of washing the bedding soiled by patients. During the station's early years, she placed the blankets, mattresses and linens in huge wooden cages for 24 hours so that they could be rinsed by the tide. Then she boiled the laundry and washed it with soap. As of the 1890s, her work was made much easier by the use of the disinfection chambers. Given the multicultural environment at the quarantine station, the interpreter played a key role. Whether called on to speak Norwegian or German, the interpreter ensured that the immigrants and doctors could understand each other during ship inspections and at the hospital.

In the early years, the sailors used rowboats to transport the medical inspector, the immigrants and supplies. As of 1886, larger crews had to be hired to man the small steamers used for ship inspection and disinfection. The first of these was the Hygiea. Subsequent ships were the Challenger, Druid, Polana and Alice.

Police, Guards and Other Staff

Guards and police officers helped the immigrants as they arrived on the island. They watched the fences that separated the hospitals and divided the immigrants' area from that of the employees. The police officers were also called on to assist in any disputes concerning the passengers and employees.

Other employees on Grosse Île included bakers, telegraph operators, disinfection staff, electricians, teachers, postmasters, carters and labourers-all of them essential to ensuring that the station ran smoothly.

Catholic priests and Protestant ministers played a major role in this little community. Much of their time was devoted to parish life. In addition to hearing confession, administering last rites and celebrating religious events, they visited the sick in hospital and the families under observation, and distributed holy pictures to them.

During the affluent years of the early 20th century, some 200 people were living on Grosse Île, most of them accompanied by their families. They contributed to village life, centred around the church, the school and the bakery. As a result, Saint-Luc-de-Grosse-Île became a good place to live, and some families settled there for several generations.

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