The Smallpox Epidemic of 1876-1877 in the Icelandic Settlements

by W. A. Baldwin
edited by Lillian Gibbons

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1973, Volume 19, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Dr. W. A. Baldwin, whose name appears on the first register of College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba, under date January 5, 1875, was one of four doctors who attended Icelanders suffering smallpox in the winter of 1876-77 102 died in the epidemic from a population of close to 1500.

Winnipeg, March 13th, 1877

I am going to fulfil my promise, which was as soon as I got back to Winnipeg to write and tell you all I did during the winter. I left there on Sunday, the 26th of November, and arrived at Gimli the next evening. The following morning I went over with Dr. Lynch to visit the hospital. It was full of patients, of course, all with smallpox. They were to be seen in every stage, some dying and some convalescent. The next day I visited several houses, and such a sight you never saw. Every house had somebody down with the disease. The settlement extends about 45 miles, and the houses were of the worst description. I had to stoop to go into nearly every house. There were some doors so low I had to go on my hands and knees to get in and such filth. I cannot describe it. And fancy, I had to sleep in these wretched houses. I always slept with my clothes on, so that I would not get lice on me. I wore a leather coat. The houses are all one room, and in some there would be 18 or 19 in them, all huddled together like as many pigs. Any houses that had more room, they would have their cows in. I had to sleep several times in the room of which the cows occupied the other end. You can imagine that it would not smell very sweet. On my first trip when I was 40 miles north of Gimli, one of those large islands, my guide took the smallpox. Well, as he and I used the same blankets, we slept together, and I had to sleep with him, and he with the eruption out on him for four nights.

On New Year's Day, I was on my second trip on the lake. On my third trip I had to amputate three feet that got badly frozen. The poor wretches were lost on the lake in a storm. One has no idea what these lake storms are, unless you have been in one. Lake Winnipeg is very large. For three months I did nothing but treat smallpox, so you can imagine I have seen enough of it. When I went to some of the houses I would find perhaps some six or eight sick, some that had only a few hours to live. You would see old men and women, young men and girls, and poor little infants that would make the hardest heart ache for them, and to see them in their mother's arms, and perhaps the next time I came round, their little bodies would be put outside till they had time to make a rough box to bury them in. On my second trip I heard that there was a family on Big Black Island, so I went to see them, and such a sight! The mother had just got over the smallpox. Her infant at her breast dying, and they had nothing to cover the poor little creature. The house was so small that I could not stand up. I was compelled to sit down. I got out my tea and pemmican and I and my Indian guide were obliged to make our dinner on that alone, after a whole day's travel. They had no flour, in fact nothing but fish. I left what medicine and nourishment I had brought for the sick, and to see their eyes brighten in hopes that it came in time to save their little one can never be forgotten. But alas! the little thing, only nine months old, died next day, and they had to put it on top of the house till they could get some boards to make a box for it. I had a pretty hard time myself, but when I looked at the poor Icelanders, I felt that I fared like a king, though I had to sleep on a bed made of hay.

Page revised: 20 July 2009