PO Box 523, Station B, Ottawa, ON, K1P 5P6
Friday, 30 June 2023 23:13

Banish the Fly!

1 July 1912

The best way of getting rid of Mr. Fly is to get rid of his boarding house and his breeding house—the rubbish heaps, the old barrel, the exposed manure pile, or whatever is usually found in a neglected city back yard. Ottawa Journal, 1913.

Musca domestica, the pesky housefly. Easily identified by the four black stripes on its thorax, the housefly, which measures about 5 to 7 millimetres, in length, can be found throughout the world wherever humans live. Indeed, the housefly has made a “career” of feasting on the detritus of humans and their domesticated animals. After mating, the female of the species lays her eggs in batches of 100 or more on rotting vegetable or animal matter, including carrion or feces. After a day or so, the larvae hatch and begin feeding. They mature in as little as two weeks depending on temperature conditions. A female housefly can live for about a month and can produce as many as 500 eggs during her lifetime. In the absence of avian and insectile predators, as well as humans armed with rolled up newspapers, two amorous flies can produce a gazillion descendants during a summer. Thankfully, this is not the case.

While houseflies play an important ecological role in recycling organic wastes, their habit of feasting on the garbage in the bin at the side of the house, or the dog poop in the backyard, before skittering over granny’s lemon chiffon cake is not an endearing feature. Consequently, they have long been considered a vector for the spread of disease. Their persistence and apparent clairvoyance are other annoying behavioural features. Who hasn’t futilely tried to discourage a determined fly from walking all over one’s arms or legs?

Sustained efforts to rid cities of the much-hated housefly took place during the early years of the twentieth century in major Eastern US cities, such as Cleveland, as well as in major cities in Canada, including Toronto, Montreal, Hamilton, and Ottawa. The objective was to curb the spread of disease, particularly tuberculosis, typhoid, and infant diarrhea, believed to be spread by houseflies.

Such efforts had many elements. First, cities introduced bylaws requiring their citizens to take steps to minimize the breeding grounds of flies by collecting and covering manure piles. Recall the prevalence of horses during this period; cars had yet to replace them to any significant degree. As one horse can produce ten kilograms of manure daily, equine waste disposal was a major problem. Much was simply left on the streets, thereby attracting flies. Second, public health organizations distributed literature to households on the habits of houseflies, their impact on public health, and how to kill them or, barring that, keeping food uncontaminated and homes pest-free. Third, children, often the Boy Scouts, were mobilized to kill the bugs and to spread the word; the rationale being to harness youthful zeal, and to educate the next generation who might be more open that their parents to new health ideas. Recall that the germ theory of disease was still relatively new during the early twentieth century. Many people still thought bad smells, called miasmas, were the cause of disease. The idea that flies could transmit disease by just walking on food was a novel concept for many.

In July 1912, the Montreal Daily Star hosted a “Swat the Fly” contest in Montreal, offering prizes totally an amazing $350—a huge sum at that time, equivalent to close to $10,000 today—with first prize being $25. The contest was open to all children, both boys and girls. The contest was a huge success. Nearly one thousand Montreal children answered the call, swatting approximately 25 million flies, and, more importantly, spreading the word about household hygiene. Their tally, which far exceeded the paltry tally of 1.5 million flies caught by Toronto kids, as well as those of cities south of the border, earned Montreal the title of “world fly-swatting champion.”

fly oc 15 6 1912Ottawa Evening Citizen, 15 June 1912Ottawa also took up the anti-fly challenge. In May 1911, city council passed a bylaw requiring downtown stables to contain manure in bins with tight covers or to be connected to the sewers. At the time, the Ottawa Citizen estimated that as many as three-quarters of downtown stables were not doing this. As well, the enforcement of existing hygiene laws appears to have been lax owing to the cost of regular inspections. The newspaper opined that “the greatest single step towards the elimination of the house fly in Ottawa will be when all stable within the city limits whether by careful inspection, or otherwise, are compelled to follow the simple and easily kept rules which other cities have imposed thereon.”

In June 1912, it was announced in the Ottawa Citizen that there would be an anti-fly contest in the nation’s capital running for two weeks beginning Dominion Day. Ottawa’s new slogan for the period was “Banish the Fly!” The contest was organized by the Public Health Committee of Ottawa’s local Council of Women in co-operation with the city’s department of health. The Council provided nine prizes with a total value of $25, with the event open to both boys and girls under fifteen years of age. The boy or girl killing the most houseflies would win $10, with second place earning $5. There were also three third-place prizes of $2 each and four fourth-place prizes of $1. Captured flies were to be turned over to the office of Dr. Shirreff, the city’s chief medical officer, at City Hall, for inspection and counting. Children could use any sort of container in which to bring their “catch.” Any method of fly-catching was acceptable except apparently for the use of “tanglefoot paper.” The newspaper said that the competition was “a new and vital form of educating people to a danger long overlooked or neglected,” and hoped that the campaign would get a good response so that “Ottawa will this summer be a most unpopular resort for the fly.” A similar “Swat the Fly” contest was also launched in Hull.

Consistent with doctors’ recommendations, the newspaper advised kids to catch flies outside before they had a chance to come inside and spread disease. Homeowners were told to equip all windows and doors with screens to keep out the pest, and to move rubbish and refuse away from back doors. The Citizen also recommended poison as the most efficacious means of killing flies. Helpfully, the newspaper provided recipes. The first was an innocuous mixture of the yolk of one egg, 1/3 cup of sweet milk, one level tablespoon of sugar, and one level tablespoon of pepper. Alternatively, it recommended a mixture of two tablespoons of formalin and 16 ounces of equal parts of water and milk. Regardless of the mixture used, the Citizen said that it should be placed in shallow plates, with a piece of bread floating in the middle to allow more room for the flies to land on. As a testimonial to the effectiveness of the formalin trap, it cited a Professor R. J. Smith of North Carolina who apparently caught 40,000 flies in a calf barn during a 16-hour period using the recipe.

One thing the newspaper neglected to mention, however, was the dangers of formalin. A lethal dose for an adult human is about 30 millilitres, the amount recommended by the newspaper in its fly poison recipe. Used for embalming purposes and in dilute amounts as an anti-bactericide, formalin, a colourless liquid, releases formaldehyde gas which is both flammable and poisonous. Dangerous to have around the house, and not something one would want children to handle, woe betide any thirsty household pet that might be attracted to the milk and bread mixture.

Despite the exhortations of the Citizen, the “Banish the Fly” contest got off to a slow start. More than a week into the campaign, only nine boys and one girl had entered. The city kept a running tally of each participant’s “kill” and issued receipts. Half way in, John Cooney of 138 Besserer Street was in the lead with a total of 20,000 flies out of a total of 46,500 turned into City Hall.

In case you were wondering, health department clerks didn’t laboriously count each fly. Instead, the flies, which were brought into city hall in bottles, envelopes, matchboxes, and even a talcum power can, were weighed. Their weight in grammes was then multiplied by 200 to get an approximate number of houseflies.

flies oc 28 4 15Public announcement, Public Health Committee of Ottawa’s Local Council of Women, Ottawa Citizen, 28 April 1915.Additional participants trickled in. By the close of the competition, twenty-two children—seventeen boys and five girls—brought a total of 458,300 flies to the Department of Health. In first place was eleven-year-old Roy Judd of 136 Besserer Street who had killed 61,700 flies. His preferred method was poison. In second place was Mortimer Thompson of 164 Hopewell Avenue. Ethel Moffat (age 12 years), of 143 Kent Street took the third position, and was the highest-scoring girl. John Cooney (age 10 years), who had been initially leading the competition came in fourth with 40,700 flies. John Cooney and Roy Judd, the ultimate winner, were next door neighbours. The youngest competitor was Clyde Swan of 201 Division Street (Bronson Avenue). The five-year old collected an impressive 7,600 flies.

While anti-fly campaigns were launched in the years that followed, this was the only Banish the Fly contest held in Ottawa. Although the housefly population was barely dented, reviews were positive in that it helped to educate people about the relationship between public cleanliness and public health.

Whether the humble housefly deserved the opprobrium heaped upon it during the early twentieth century is less clear. According to Valarie Minell et al, the authors of Swatting Flies for Health: Children and Tuberculosis in Early Twentieth-Century Montreal, the housefly had been “vilified.” Indeed, today the house fly is generally viewed a nuisance rather than a major transmitter of disease. This probably reflects the fact that in urban areas there are now few horses and other forms of livestock, outhouses are a thing of the past, and kitchen waste is picked up weekly for composting. With fewer feeding grounds and hatcheries, housefly numbers are likely much smaller today than a hundred years ago. Nonetheless, Musca domestica is reportedly a carrier of hundreds of different forms of bacteria. Many of these bacteria are pathogenic to humans and can cause many diseases, including dysentery, tuberculosis, typhoid, and polio. To this long list, recent research has shown that the house fly can be a carrier of the bacteria H. pylori that can cause stomach ulcers.

So, the next time you spot a housefly, swat it.


Khamesipour, F., Lankarani, K. B., Honarvar, B. & Kwenti, T. E., 2018. “A systemic review of human pathogens carried by the housefly (Musca domestica L.), BMC Public Health, Article No. 1049.

Minnell, Valerie. & Poutanen, Mary-Anne, “Swatting Flies for Health: Children and Tuberculosis in Early Twentieth-Century Montreal,” Urban History Review, Vol. 36, No.1 Fall 2007.

Ottawa Journal, 1911. “No Title,” 22 March.

——————-, 1911. “The Sanitary Inspection,” 12 June.

——————-, 1913. “One City Conquers Mr. Fly.

Ottawa Citizen, 1911. “Anti-Fly Bylaw,” 29 October.

——————, 1912. “Premium On Flies,” 7 June.

——————, 1912. “The Anti-Fly Campaign Gives Boys And Girls Chance To Earn Money,” 15 June.

——————, 1912. “Here He Is! Swat Him!” 1 July.

——————, 1912. “After Hull Flies,” 4 July.

——————, 1912. “Early Swatting,” 10 July.

——————, 1912. “An Educative Campaign,” 10 July.

——————, 1912. “Fly Campaign,” 11 July.

——————, 1912. “Fly Swatters Who Win Prizes,” 16 July.

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History.

Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

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Wednesday, 01 February 2023 10:40

Victorian Order of Home Helpers, a.k.a. The VON

10 February 1897

By early 1897 Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was fast approaching. Across Canada, communities and governments were trying to decide on how best to mark this historic event. On 10 February 1897, a public meeting was held under the auspices of the National Council of Women of Canada in the assembly hall of the Normal School on Elgin Street to discuss a proposal to establish the Victorian Order of Home Helpers as a means of honouring the Queen’s long reign. This idea was consistent with the Queen’s wish that celebrations be connected with efforts to alleviate the suffering of the sick and poor. The Council’s president was the Countess of Aberdeen, the wife of the Governor General. Lady Aberdeen, born Ishbel Marie Marjoribanks, was a woman of extraordinary energy and ability. An early feminist, she had founded a number of charitable organizations in her native Scotland that focused on poor women. Following her husband’s appointment as Canada’s Governor General, she founded in 1894 the National Council of Women of Canada, and was the Council’s first president.

von lady aberdeen 1898 lacLady Aberdeen, 1898, Library and Archives CanadaThe idea of a national organization of “Home Helpers” originated in western Canada, possibly at a meeting of the Vancouver local council of women and Lady Aberdeen. Another report suggested that the idea came from the local council of Victoria, and was later forwarded to the National Council of Women. Regardless, Lady Aberdeen was an early supporter and quickly became identified with the proposal.

The public meeting at the Normal School was well attended. With the Governor General and senior government officials present, including the Premier, Wilfrid Laurier, Lady Aberdeen addressed the assembly. She stressed the debt owed by women to Queen Victoria—“no section of Her Majesty’s subjects have more cause to sing the praises of this glorious epoch than the members of Her Majesty’s own sex.” She noted that new possibilities had opened up for women during the Queen’s reign. The Queen has demonstrated that a woman can “have an intimate knowledge and grasp of the affairs of state whilst at the same time being a model of all womanly, wifely, and motherly virtues and charms.”

Speaking about the proposed scheme, Lady Aberdeen said Home Helpers would need to have a practical knowledge of midwifery, first aid, home-keeping, simple home sanitation, and the preparation of food for invalids. She thought that a “Home Helper” would be “constantly visiting homes in need—would be giving advice, cheering the home and doing various acts of mercy and kindness.” Successful applicants, who would have to pass an examination set by the medical profession, would be supplied with a uniform and the badge of the Order.

She estimated that $1 million was needed to ensure that funds would be available in perpetuity. Local women’s councils would undertake collections in co-operation with others. The Bank of Montreal agreed to receive subscriptions.

At the public meeting, Wilfrid Laurier, moved the following resolution, seconded by Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior:

That this meeting heartily approves of the general character of the scheme described as the Victorian Order of Home Helpers as a mode of commemoration by the Dominion of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and that a fund be opened for the carrying out thereof.

Despite governmental support, Lady’s Aberdeen’s Order of Home Helpers met mixed reviews, especially from members of the medical profession. Although doctors in Montreal, including Professor Craik, the dean of McGill’s medical school, supported the plan, it was rejected by others, including the Ontario Medical Association, as being impractical and even dangerous. Many feared that well-meaning but otherwise under-qualified women would be sent out to administer to the sick.

In part as a way to alleviate these concerns, the name of the scheme was quickly changed to the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON). The plan was also tweaked to make it clear that only highly-qualified nurses would qualify for the Order. The VON’s objectives were also clarified. They were: i) to provide skilled nurses in sparsely settled regions of the country; ii) to provide skilled nurses to attend sick poor people in their own homes; iii) to provide skilled nurses to attend cases in cities at fixed charges for persons of small incomes; iv) to provide cottage hospitals or small lying-in rooms in homes; and v) to train nurses to carry out these objectives. Nurse salaries, estimated at $400-500 per year, would be paid by the Order, with any fees collected by nurses from those who could afford them to be sent to the Order.

Despite these changes, opposition continued. Many doctors believed that it would be better if physicians and surgeons were paid bonuses to go out to frontier districts, or if funds were used to expand existing hospitals. Others doubted whether “even a very strong-minded female,” would be physically up to the rigours of a north-western winter if called out in the middle of the night.

Lady Aberdeen and other officials worked hard speaking to groups across the country to drum up support for the Victorian Order of Nurses and to dispel rumours that only minimally trained nurses would be hired. They also stressed that instead of replacing doctors, the nurses would, to the extent possible, be working under their direct supervision. This helped. In Winnipeg, the Manitoba Morning Free Press, which had been a fervent opponent to the scheme, was converted. Instead of believing that the Victorian Order of Nurses was “a well-meaning fad” that was “ill-digested, unwise and impractical,” as it had earlier opined, it concluded that “as the scheme becomes better known and its aim better understood, opposition and indifference will disappear.” The paper chided Winnipeg doctors for not attending a public meeting where details of the scheme were presented.

Some criticisms became very personal. The Halifax Herald attacked Lady Aberdeen. It wrote that the proper commemoration of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee was being “frustrated through Lady Aberdeen’s inability to mind her own business.” It was a “thoroughly quixotic scheme” and that “we expect our Governors-General to so govern their own families as to keep them out of mischief.” The New York Evening Post said that Lady Aberdeen was not popular in Canada, being “too clever and too advanced for Canadians.” Instead of paying attention to “etiquette and raiment,” she was “too much interested in ‘movements.’” Clearly the sight of an independent woman striving to make a difference in a male-dominated world was too much to stomach for some members of the public.

Given such criticisms, Lady Aberdeen must have received a much welcomed confidence boost when the British Medical Association and Lord Lister, the father of antisepsis, endorsed the Victorian Order of Nurses. She must have been similarly gratified when Florence Nightingale, the most famous nurse of all time, also came out in favour of her scheme.

von toej 3 6 98Newspaper clipping announcing the granting of a Royal Charter to the Victorian Order of Nurses, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 3 June 1898.Here in Ottawa, weekly meetings were held through the spring of 1897 in the Governor General’s office in the Departmental building on Parliament Hill to get the VON up and running. A provisional management committee was established, comprised of some high-powered people, including Lady Ritchie, the wife of Canada’s Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Bishop of Ottawa, and Sir Henri Joly de Lotbinière, a former premier of Quebec, later to become the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. Four trustees were also appointed to manage the money that began to flow to the Order. Sandford Fleming, a resident of Ottawa and the father of world-wide standard time, was one of the trustees. In late April 1897, the VON was officially endorsed by Ottawa citizens at another public meeting at the Normal School. The indefatigable Lady Aberdeen presided.

Slowly the money began to roll in. Subscriptions began at 5 cents. Both the great and small contributed. Sir Donald Smith (later Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal), the president of the Bank of Montreal and the man who hammered in the last spike on the Canadian Pacific Railway, donated $5,000, and pledged another $5,000 as soon as donations of $100,000 had been made by others contributing $1,000 or more. Meanwhile, fourteen children, the oldest aged 12, at a francophone school near Ottawa sent in their allowances. Their teacher attached a letter to Lady Aberdeen saying “The children of my school cannot pass this occasion to do something for Queen Victoria. Not being rich but having the will to aid the poor, they send you the amount enclosed.” The letter listed the names and ages of the children.

Although the scheme came nowhere near reaching the goal of $1 million, a huge sum back in those days, it received enough in donations and pledges, about $250,000, for it to proceed. On Jubilee Day, 22 June 1897, Lord Aberdeen, the Governor General officially announced the formation of the Victorian Order of Nurses as a lasting tribute to Queen Victoria.

von charlotte macleod c 1897 lacMiss Charlotte MacLeod, First Chief Superintendent of the Victorian Order of Nurses, 1898, Library and Archives Canada.

The VON hit the ground running. Within its first year, Lady Aberdeen had acquired the home of Alderman Davis of Ottawa at 578 Somerset Street for the Order’s headquarters. VON training homes were also established in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. Miss Charlotte MacLeod, who had worked with Florence Nightingale, was named as the VON’s Chief Superintendent. In the spring of 1898, four nurses were sent to help administer to the sick in the Yukon. At this time, tens of thousands of people were travelling to the Klondike in the great gold rush.  Disease, owing to poor sanitation, was rampant. Lady and Lord Aberdeen bid the nurses au revoir with a dinner at Rideau Hall on the eve of their departure on their month-long journey to Dawson City.

In early June 1898, it was announced that the Victorian Order of Nurses had received a Royal Charter for Canada as well as a local charter for an Ottawa chapter for the counties of Carleton and Russell in Ontario, and the country of Ottawa in Quebec. Life membership in the Ottawa chapter was set at $100, with an annual membership costing $5. Quickly, Ottawa had 18 life members and 40 annual members. A meeting was also held in the committee room of the Ottawa City Hall to elect a board of management. With the now Sir Sanford Fleming in the chair, an all-woman, twelve-person board was elected. Prominent among them were Lady Laurier and Lady Ritchie.

In late 1898, Lord Aberdeen’s tour of duty as Governor General came to an end. But before the vice-regal couple left Ottawa, Lady Aberdeen received a letter from Colonel Evens, the commandant of the Yukon military contingent expressing his and his soldiers’ “sincere appreciation” for the services of the Victorian Order nurses. “The work of the Victorian Order in Dawson is a great one, and the opening of the new hospital was providential.  Their presence with the force has been invaluable…I don’t know how we should have fared without them.”

In 2017, one hundred years after its founding, the Victorian Order of Nurses had 5,000 employees and 9,000 volunteers, and provided 75 home care, support and community services in more than 1,200 Canadian communities.


Halifax Herald (The), 1897. “A Halifax Opinion,” in The Ottawa Evening Journal, 25 May.

Manitoba Morning Free Press, 1897. “Victorian Nurses,” 23 April.

————————————-. 1897. “The Victorian Fund,” 28 May.

————————————-, 1897. “Victoria Order,” 28 May.

————————————-, 1897. “Order of Nurses,” 28 May.

————————————-, 1897. “Victorian Order Of Nurses,” 31 May.

————————————-, 1897. “The Victorian Order,” 2 June.

————————————, 1897. “The Victorian Order,” 7 June.

————————————, 1897. “The Doctors And The Victorian Order,” 8 June.

The New York Evening Post, 1897. “Victorian Order of Nurses,” in the Vancouver Daily World, 12 August.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1897. “Victorian Home Helpers,” 11 February.

————————————-, 1897. “Some Explanations,” 3 March.

————————————-, 1897. “Getting Organized,” 19 March.

————————————-, 1897. “Citizens Will Meet,” 21 April.

————————————-, 1897. “Victorian Nurses,” 24 April.

————————————-, 1897. “Ottawa Is In Line,” 26 April.

————————————-, 1897. “Victorian Order of Nurses,” 14 June.

————————————-, 1897. “The Scheme Unpopular,” 13 July

————————————-, 1897. “Eager To Help, 20 July.

————————————-, 1898. “Klondike Nurses,” 28 March.

————————————-, 1898. “Music For Rideau Hall,” 31 May.

————————————-, 1898. “Victorian Order of Nurses,” 3 June.

————————————-, 1898. “Home For V.O.N.” 7 June.

————————————-, 1898. “Women’s Council,” 12 July.

————————————. 1898. “Victorian Nurses In The Klondike,” 1 October.

Vancouver Daily World, 1897. “Women Helpers,” 22 February.

—————————–, 1897. “Taking Practical Form,” 26 March.

—————————–, 1897. “Cablegram from Sir Donald Smith” 28 June 1897.

—————————–, 1897. “Victorian Order Of Nurses,” 1 October.

—————————–, 1898. “Training Home For Nurses,” 27 July.

VON Canada, 2017. http://www.von.ca/.

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History

Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

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Friday, 17 January 2020 16:27

The End of the Crippler

18 April 1955

polio 5Anti-Polio Advertisement,
The Ottawa Journal, 2 February 1950

Thanks to vaccines we no longer live in fear of many infectious diseases that used to stalk the world killing millions each year, and maiming or crippling tens of millions more. By the early 1950s, Canadian children were routinely immunized against smallpox, diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus. But several diseases remained to be conquered. One of the most feared was poliomyelitis, also known as infantile paralysis for its propensity to affect the young, or “the Crippler.”

The disease is caused by the poliovirus, a type of enterovirus of the family Picornaviridae. It was first isolated in 1908 by the Austrian researchers and physicians Karl Landsteiner and Erwin Popper. The virus has three serotype versions (PV1-Brunhide, PV2-Lansing and PV3-Leon). All are virulent, though PV1-Brunhide is the most common strain, and the one most associated with paralysis. Most people who come into contact with the polio virus experience no symptoms beyond a sore throat, a gastrointestinal upset, a slight fever, and a general malaise. Called “abortive polio,” this is considered a minor illness that leaves no permanent effects. A small percentage of victims experience “aseptic” polio that also involves severe neck, back and muscle pain, as well as a bad fever. In a still smaller percentage of sufferers, the polio virus attacks the central nervous system leading to muscle flaccidity, especially of the limbs, and paralysis. Depending on what part of the nervous system is affected, “paralytic” polio is classified as spinal, bulbar, and bulbospinal. In some cases, the diaphragm and chest muscles are affected. Sufferers of this form of the disease need help to breath. In 1927, two Harvard researchers invented the “iron lung,” into which paralysed patients were placed to aid their breathing mechanically. Although most were able to leave the machine after several weeks, some were confined for years, or had to use a portable breathing apparatus. Polio suffers whose limbs had become paralyzed sometimes recovered their use after a few weeks. However, some many were left permanently disabled. Two to ten per cent of people stricken with paralytic polio died. There is no cure for the disease, only prevention.

Although polio has been around for thousands of years, it didn’t use to have the fearful reputation that it had during the first half of the twentieth century. For the most part, people had acquired a natural immunity to the disease.  But as living standards and hygiene improved, the incidence of the disease paradoxically increased. The natural immunity that protected people had been weakened or lost. According to Christopher Rutty, a medical historian, fears about polio, heightened by publicity, were disproportionate to the risk of catching the paralytic form of the disease. But frightened parents told their children to “regard [polio] as a fierce monster” that was “more sinister than death itself.” The fact that people at the time didn’t understand the transmission mechanism of the disease (typically faecal-oral) made it all the scarier. You didn’t know what to do to protect yourself and your family. When outbreaks occurred, often during the summer months, health officials in epidemic areas closed cinemas, playgrounds, and delayed school openings. In Ottawa, when the federal government announced in 1950 that the water from the Rideau River would be temporarily diverted to allow for repairs near its outfall into the Ottawa River, residents of Sandy Hill, fearful of polio-infected flies that might breed in exposed marshes and refuse, lobbied for the repairs to be delayed until after the summer polio season.

People stricken with polio were sent to special isolation hospitals for a minimum of seven days required by provincial law. Their families were quarantined. Ottawa’s Strathcona Isolation Hospital was one of six designated centres for the treatment of polio in Ontario. The other centres were located in Toronto, Kingston, London, Hamilton and Windsor. The Strathcona Hospital’s “territory” ran from Pembroke to Morrisburg. In 1953, the old hospital was closed when a new East Lawn Pavilion with isolation facilities was opened at the Ottawa Civic Hospital. Seventeen patients were transferred from the Strathcona facility, including one in an iron lung. Although this was a time before provincial health insurance (OHIP), the care for polio victims was paid for by the provincial government. Later, following complaints by doctors that they couldn’t submit bills to well-to-to polio patients, the government modified the rules to allow doctors to charge wealthy patients. Poor patients continued to receive free care at teaching hospitals connected to universities.

polio 2Advertisement for the Canadian March of Dimes, 1950 Campaign
The Ottawa Journal, 4 February 1950
Following the election of Franklin Roosevelt at President of the United States in 1933, who was himself a polio survivor, the medical profession in the United States and Canada took aim at the disease. Funding for research into the development of a vaccine was provided in the United States by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis that had its roots in a private anti-polio organization started by the Roosevelt family. The Foundation sponsored an annual March of Dimes campaign supported by Hollywood stars to raise money to find a cure for the disease and to care for polio victims. In Canada, a parallel organization called the Canadian Foundation for Poliomyelitis was founded in Ottawa in 1949. The Canadian Foundation held the first Canadian March of Dimes campaign the following year. Newspapers across the country carried the photograph of “Linda,” a child polio victim wearing iron leg braces. In Ottawa, twenty-five hundred blue and red checkered collection boxes were distributed in stores, banks and restaurants.

In 1953, North America experienced it worst outbreak of polio in decades. In Canada, there were 8,878 reported cases, mostly in Manitoba and Ontario, with a death rate of 3.3 persons per 100,000 population, far higher than during earlier outbreaks.  Ottawa had 100 recorded cases by the end of that year’s polio season with four deaths. To help control the spread of the disease, Dr J. J. Dey, the city’s medical officer of health, advised Ottawa citizens not to drink unpasteurized milk, not to jump into water when the body was tired, and to avoid fatigue. He also told people to stay away from crowds, to keep the house free from flies, and to wash all fruits and vegetables. More usefully, he advised people to wash their hands frequently, and to boil drinking water if one had any doubts.

Fortunately, by this time, a vaccine was close at hand. In 1949, Harvard scientist Dr John Enders discovered that the polio virus could be propagated in the organs of monkeys. The following year, the Polish-born virologist Hilary Koprowski developed an experimental oral vaccine using a live but weakened virus of the PV2-Lansing variety of the disease, and successfully immunized some twenty children in New York State.

polio 3Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh, 1955
The Owl - University of Pittsburgh Digital Archives, Wikipedia
Meanwhile, at the University of Pittsburgh, Jonas Salk was working on determining the number of different strains of polioviruses and developing a vaccine using dead viruses that would be effective against all strains of the disease.  Connaught Laboratories at the University of Toronto, supported by a federal grant as well as money provided by the Canadian March of Dimes, was also developing the procedure for producing industrial-size quantities of the polio virus, a necessary and vital step for the mass production of the Salk vaccine. Related work was conducted at the Institute of Microbiology and Hygiene in Montreal. Connaught later supplied much of the virus that went into making the Salk vaccine in North America as well as making the vaccine itself for the Canadian inoculation campaign.

By 1954, Salk who had safely tested his vaccine first on his family and then on 700 volunteers was ready for a large-scale test. He organized a trial involving two million children. Half received a three-shot dose of the experimental vaccine over a period of several weeks with the other half receiving placebos. Most of the children were American. But U.S. authorities offered 50,000 doses to Canada. Health departments in Alberta and Nova Scotia took up the offer and inoculated thousands of young children. In mid-April 1955, the results of the trial were announced to a packed conference room at the University of Michigan: polio had been defeated! The vaccine had been 80% effective in protecting children from the disease. The relief was palpable. Immediately, steps were taken to inoculate all children in North America starting with those in Grades 1 and 2.

polio 4Polio shots at Elgin Street Public School, 1955
Newton Photographic Associates Ltd., City of Ottawa Archives, MG393-NP-36093-006, CA-025699
In Canada, the inoculations were paid for on a 50:50 basis by the federal and provincial governments. Youngsters in Toronto and Pembroke received the first dose of the vaccine in early April even before the official announcement of Salk’s successful mass trial. The inoculation programme began in Ottawa on Monday, 18 April 1955. That morning, Grade 1 and 2 students at four public schools (Elgin, Lady Evelyn, Borden and Cambridge) and five separate schools (Ste Famille, St Patrick, St Jean Baptiste, St Anthony and Christ the King) received their first round of shots. That afternoon, five more schools were visited by teams of nurses. Children in remaining schools received their shots through the week. Parents had to sign a consent form for their children to receive the inoculation with the warning that if the children missed the first shot, they couldn’t receive the subsequent shots. Across the Ottawa River in Hull, the inoculation programme started in May with children aged two to three years since that age group had been most affected in Quebec during the 1953 epidemic.

In the midst of the roll-out of the continent-wide vaccination campaign, disaster struck.  Some children in the United States came down with polio after having received their shots. Several died. The problem was traced to poor quality control at the Cutter Laboratories of Berkeley, California, one of six American vaccine manufacturers. Their vaccine contained live instead of dead viruses. According to the Journal of Pediatrics, the vaccine had been rushed. The U.S. vaccination programme was temporarily suspended despite the coming onset of the 1955 polio season. In Canada, Health Minister Paul Martin Sr faced one of the toughest decisions of his life: should the Canadian programme also be suspended as Prime Minister St Laurent wished? With all of the Canadian vaccine produced at Toronto’s Connaught Laboratories, and having full confidence in Canadian scientists and doctors, he ordered the Canadian programme to go ahead as planned. No Canadian child came down with polio as result of the vaccine.

By August 1955, the number of polio cases in Canada and the United States had dropped dramatically even though only a portion of children had been immunized. In November, Paul Martin publicly stated “I don’t think there can be any doubt that it [the vaccine] has had some effect.” By 1962, the number of reported polio cases in Canada had fallen to only 89.

In the early 1960s, the Salk vaccine was generally replaced by an oral vaccine using live but weakened viruses developed by Albert Sabin who drew on the earlier work of Hilary Koprowski. The Sabin vaccine was cheap to produce and administer and was very powerful—95 per cent effective after three doses (one for each polio strain). Polio infection rates around the world plummeted. In 1988, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a campaign to eradicated polio from the world supported by national governments, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, Rotary International and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2000, the Americas were certified as polio free. In 2014, South-East Asia was certified as polio free. By 2016, the number of reported polio cases worldwide had dropped to only 37 located in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The WHO estimates that because of the global vaccination campaign, 16 million people walk today who otherwise would have been paralyzed. Many, many lives have also been saved. However, war and civil strife threaten this achievement. Endemic transmission of the disease continues in the three remaining polio hotspots. With vaccination efforts disrupted in these areas, the Crippler could well return.


CBC Archives, 1993. A History of Polio in Canada, posted 7 April 2016.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014, Poliomyelitis.

Council Bluffs Nonpareil (Iowa), 1954. “Report Results of Polio Research,” 11 April.

MedicineNet.com. 2017. Medical Definition of Abortive Polio.

Museum of Health Care at Kingston, 2017, Polio.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1949. “First Fatal Polio Case,” 20 July.

————————–, 1949. “Ottawa Cases of Polio Total 29 This Year,” 15 August.

————————–, 1949. “Foundation Plans Drive For Funds to Fight Polio,” 4 November.

————————–, 1950. “Rideau Draining To Proceed,” 10 August.

————————–, 1950. “St. Germain’s Protest Against Rideau Draining,” 15 August.

————————–, 1950. “March of Dimes For Polio Victims Starts Sunday,” 30 December.

————————–, 1953. “Ontario Announces new Policy For Treating Polio,”6 January.

————————–, 1953. “MOH Issues Statement on Polio,” 17 July.

————————–, 1953. “Lab Producing Polio Virus In Quantities,” 25 September.

————————–, 1953. “Polio Season Is Over,” 14 October.

————————–, 1953. “Hope-Filled Polio Vaccine For Million U.S. Children,” 17 November.

————————–, 1953. “New East Lawn Pavilion Opened At Civic,” 16 December

————————–, 1954. “Provinces Offered U.S. Polio Vaccine,”26 May.

————————–, 1955. “Polio Shots April 18 For Ottawa Children,” 4 March.

————————–, 1955. “Ottawa Will Start Trials of Polio Vaccine April 18,” 9 April.

————————–, 1955. “SALK CONQUERS POLIO,” 12 April.

————————–, 1955. “Salk Was So Confident of Success His Own Children Got Vaccine First,” 12 April.

————————–, 1955. “Ontario to Provide Injections for All School Children,” 12 April.

————————–, 1955. “Man’s Victory Over Polio,” 13 April.

————————–, 1955. “Duplessis Decides Quebec To Take Part In Anti-Polio Plan,” 15 April.

————————-, 1955. “First Week of Vaccine Shots Against Polio Start Monday,” 16 April.

————————–, 1955. “Salk Answers Critical Questions,” 7 June.

————————–, 1955. “Vaccine Producer Sued After boy Contracts Polio,” 24 June.

————————–, 1955. “U.S.A. ‘Polio Vaccine Mixup,’” 27 July.

————————–, 1955. “Big Drop In Deaths By Polio,” 12 August.

————————–, 1955. “U.S. Polio Fatalities Reduced Sharply,” 12 August.

————————–, 1955. “Martin Credits Salk Vaccine,” 1 November.

Rutty, Christopher, 1995. “Do Something!…Anything! Poliomyelitis in Canada, 1927-1962”.

———————-, 1999The Middle-Class Plague: Epidemic Polio and the Canadian State, 1936-37.

Smithsonian, National Museum of American History, 2017. The Iron Lung and Other Equipment.

World Health Organization, 2017. Poliomyeliti.


Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History

Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.
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