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Disease During the
Building of the Rideau Canal

Ken W. Watson

Note: This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2020 edition of Rideau Reflections, the newsletter of the Friends of the Rideau (

This 1860 photo shows a man being bled as a medical treatment. Photo: The Burns Archive (via Wikipedia)
Today, 21st century medical science is struggling to fully understand a new virus, COVID-19. The general public is being educated about the value of proper hygiene and social distancing to prevent the spread of this infectious disease. But go back almost 200 years, to the time of the building of the Rideau Canal, a time when most diseases were a mystery and medical science was in its infancy. The vast majority of the deaths during the building of the Rideau Canal were due to disease. Medical care was rudimentary and in many cases you were better off not being treated by a “doctor” of that era given the types of treatment that you might receive.

The most well known and most misunderstood disease that affected the Rideau was malaria, which is caused by a parasite with cyclic life stages that requires two hosts, human and a particular type of mosquito. To put a well worn myth to bed, the type of malaria that affected workers on the Rideau was not unique to the Rideau and it was not brought here by British soldiers – it was already in Ontario and had been for at least 30 years prior to the building of the Rideau Canal.

But malaria was only one of several medical conditions that killed people. There was tuberculosis, known as “consumption” in that era, highly infectious and with a high death rate. There was “regular” influenza, the flu, that killed many. There was dysentery, spread by poor sanitation, which, while not generally fatal in itself, if added to the burden of something like influenza or malaria, could and did cause death. There was also gonorrhea and syphilis and host of other ailments. The excess consumption of alcohol was responsible for several accidental deaths and some poisoning deaths. Most men were smokers and this may have contributed to various types of pulmonary issues, some resulting in death.

The records we have today from that era are fragmentary, only those bits that have survived the passage of time. But one interesting complete record that we have is that of medical care along the Rideau in 1827. These records were done by Dr. A.J. Christie who was hired by Colonel By in 1827 to provide medical care to the workers along the length of the Rideau. Christie listed the disease for each person he treated as well as the outcome (basically cured or died). He treated 1,278 men, plus an unknown number of women and children, for various ailments. Most common were digestive and bowel disorders, the preponderance of these affecting Irish immigrants. Christie attributed the reason to a change from a plant-based diet to a meat-based diet which caused digestive upset. Other diseases he noted included ophthalmia (eye infection) and phlegm (usually indicating an underlying medical condition).

On Christie’s list, it was influenza that was the main killer. Of the 12 men who Christie listed as dying in 1827, 10 died of “fever cont” or continuous fever which was regular influenza that still kills many people today. Of the other two, one died of Pleurites and one of Pathis Pulma – both of those appear to be lung/chest related. Malaria was also present in 1827. While most fevers on his lists show as continuous (influenza), Christie notes a few instances of “Fever Tertian” and “Fever Intermit” – both are known today as malaria (a fever that comes and goes in cycles). There were no deaths from malaria in 1827.

A portion of A.J. Christie’s listing
This is a portion of list created by A.J. Christie, documenting the men he treated in the Rideau construction camps in 1827. On this part of the list we can see that Ira Shaw died of “fever cont”, regular influenza. John McCrae had fever tertian, likely malaria, and he is listed as being discharged cured, as were the other men on this portion of the list. Christie Papers, Library and Archives Canada, MG24, Vol. 6, p.1987.
In 1828, conditions changed. It was an unseasonably warm year producing a bumper crop of mosquitoes, including the anopheles, the only mosquito in Ontario that can carry malaria. The type of malaria was a parasite known as plasmodium vivax, a temperate form of malaria, able to overwinter in a human liver (unlike tropical malaria) and so able to survive in colder climates than tropical malaria which is a different type of malaria parasite. This temperate form of malaria was present in England and Europe at the time. It needs a certain population density of both humans and mosquitoes for the malarial cycle to sustain itself. It first appeared in urban areas, arriving in Canada towards the end of the 1700s, as our population increased. This particular type of malaria generally has a very low mortality rate – it was just one of many diseases people of the era had to contend with. An effective prophylactic for malaria, quinine, had only been synthesized in 1820 – at the time of the building of the canal it was still rare and expensive. Colonel By caught malaria at least twice and the medical treatment was to bleed him (ineffective and potentially harmful).

Another set of records that we have are those of the Sappers and Miners. Of the 22 that died, 7 had no cause listed, 5 died from black powder blasting accidents, 1 drowned, 6 were listed as dying of “fever,” 2 by consumption (tuberculosis) and 1 of a stroke. The fever deaths don’t distinguish between influenza and malaria, but based on the August to October dates of several deaths, some were likely malaria related.

There are no comprehensive records for 1828 to 1831 other than the Return of the Sick which listed deaths by malaria. But many of the medical issues that affected workers in 1827 would have continued. Influenza would have remained a problem. Problems with poor sanitation resulting in dysentery, bacterial infections and the like, would have been contributing factors in fever (influenza or malaria) deaths. And, to put another myth to bed, disease affected all equally, particularly malaria. Labourers, tradesmen, contractors and Sappers and Miners all died in about equal amounts – they were all living in the same conditions and so were affected the same way.

Cholera, one of the worst scourges of the era, didn’t arrive on the Rideau until 1832, after the canal had been completed. It hit most of the populated areas of Québec and Ontario and within the next couple of years killed far more people than died during the building of the Rideau Canal.

Today we understand many things that were not known in the 1820s and 30s. Malaria was believed to be caused by bad air, they had no clue that mosquitoes were the culprit. Colonel By ordered the trees to be cleared at all the worksites to promote the flow of fresh air in an attempt to mitigate that disease. He even purchased extra land near some lockstations so that he could clear those areas of trees. But with the night-biting anopheles mosquito infecting people while they slept, it was an ineffective prevention method.

The centuries old concept of the four bodily humours: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, although fading, was still in use. Part of that concept was that these had to be kept in balance, hence bleeding was one “cure” used to restore the balance of humours. Blistering was also used, the placement of hot plaster to raise blisters, which were then drained. Dr. Christie when he was hired in 1827, was instructed to use bleeding and blistering as treatments.

A doctor’s kit of the era would have contained all sorts of medicines, some helpful, some not (other than placebo effect) and some quite poisonous. Calomel (Mercury(I) Chloride), a poison, was used as a purgative and for curing diseases such as syphilis. Antimony was used for pneumonia and consumption. Castor oil, hemlock oil, and magnesia were for digestive issues, Epsom salts for purging, opodeldoc (a soap based plaster or liniment) for aching muscles, mustard plasters for congestion, opium or laudanum (a tincture of opium) for pain, and ipecac (powdered root of a Brazilian plant) to induce vomiting for purging.

Just as today, there was no lack of quack “cures” and people who believed in them. John MacTaggart, in his 1829 book “Three Years in Canada” stated: “The country swarms with quacks, and a man of real surgical merit receives no encouragement; people are apt to prescribe for themselves when they take a turn of illness, and so are hurried out of the world sooner than most likely they otherwise would be.”

The bottom line is that in terms of medical care, they were doing their best with the information they had. Nobody wanted to see people die, but high mortality from disease or other medical problems was a fact of life back then. It was often worse for women and children. Complications from childbirth and infant mortality were the norm. Dr. Christie noted that 6 women and 38 children died in 1827, but on a more positive note, he also noted there were 54 births.

Today, as we take precautions not to catch a new virus, and have medical systems that are often effective in taking care of us, think about those men and women who had to deal will all sorts of unknown medical conditions. And who, if they got sick, were subject to all sorts of problematic “cures.” That was just a part of life in that time period.

- Ken W. Watson Thanks to FoR director Sue Warren for providing information on what might be found in a doctor’s bag in the 1820s.

-Ken W. Watson

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