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Michael Bliss
Toronto, HarperCollins, 1991. 306pp, cloth, $26.95
ISBN 0-00-215693-8. CIP

Grades 9 and up/Ages 14 and up

Reviewed by Janice Vaudry.

Volume 20 Number 2
1992 March

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Although linguistic or cultural tension was not the central theme of Professor Bliss' book on the 1885 smallpox epidemic in Montreal, it might be viewed as a secondary thread running through this work. The relations between the English and French, the Roman Catholics and Protestants, the rich and the working class in late nineteenth-century Canada and, more specifically, Montreal, form the basis of this horrific story. One is swept along while reading this book and it is easy to forget at times that this is not fiction but rather an adept account of life in Montreal during that fateful year.

The smallpox was brought to the city by a railway porter and through the mishandling of his case the virus quickly spread through the hospital and into the city. The ensuing story is one of battles, sometimes literal, between those advocating vaccination and those opposed, between the classes, the races and the religions, each accusing the other.

Although the vaccinationists eventu­ally won out in this instance, it was not before 3,234 lives had been lost to the disease. Their victory did not signal an end to future vaccination disputes - people did not learn from this episode in medical history and battles for vaccination were still being fought well into the twentieth century.

Bliss is no stranger to topics such as this. He has written and lectured extensively on Dr. Banting and the discovery of insulin. He also writes about the field of Canadian business and economic history. It comes as no surprise that he should have chosen this topic. It is one that has been sadly neglected, even by the World Health Organization's publication on the eradication of smallpox from the world scene.

The bulk of Bliss' book deals with those critical few months in 1885 when the smallpox virus spread like wildfire through Montreal, particularly in the east end and working-class districts. Along with the Health Board's attempts to quarantine each afflicted household, there were attempts by the Ontario government and the United States to quarantine Montreal by fumigating incoming mail, checking for vaccination marks on rail passengers, and by turning people back at the border.

What is striking to the reader is how much of a circle we have made in French/English relations. Although the Church's role has diminished over the years, the media now, as then, play a large part in fuelling controversy, playing on people's fears and keeping the linguistic/cultural pot boiling. Historians constantly admonish us that we arc doomed to repeat the past unless we understand it, and it is obvious that understanding is sorely lacking.

Bliss goes to great lengths to follow the succeeding history of the smallpox virus, which culminated in its eradica­tion from nature - except for its possible existence in the frozen tundra of the north and in two laboratories. We may have eventually learned our lesson about the necessity of vaccination, but the two major language groups of Canada have yet to learn about tolera­tion for each other.

This is an excellent book for senior grades at the high school level. First of all, and most importantly, it should be read for pure enjoyment. It is useful to point out to our students that history is not dull reading and this is an oppor­tune way! Secondly, it would be helpful in illustrating the use of printed primary sources. As noted above, it could also generate discussion on such varied topics as the role of the Church in society, linguistic relations in Canada, and even the impact of the Riel Rebel­lion. Bliss has included an extensive bibliography.

Janice Vaudry, Lennoxville, Que.
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