Last year, I gave a short research talk at York University on some new research I am currently working on for a forthcoming presentation at the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History. This year’s conference will be in Toronto so I thought that this case study of a little-known continent-wide epidemic of equine influenza that started in Toronto in October 1872 would be an appropriate way to talk about my broader research on the history of animals in Canadian cities in the nineteenth century.
This brief research talk focused on my discovery of the following historical document, Diseases of the Horse (1873) by Dr. Robert McClure. This edition of McClure’s veterinary guide included an appendix on treatments for the 1872 equine influenza epizootic or, as it was known, “the Canadian horse distemper.” Dr. Andrew Smith, principal of the Ontario Veterinary College in Toronto, wrote a brief report on the epizootic and some of the recommended remedies for the mysterious illness that spread outwards from Toronto to nearly all parts of urban North America between October 1872 and June 1873. This document provided me with my first Canadian source on the event and it outlined in detail the origins of the outbreak.
Of course, this case study demonstrates the tremendous significance of horses to the functioning of nineteenth-century cities as the immobilization of entire fleets of horses brought Toronto, Montreal, Boston, New York, Chicago, and many more cities to a halt. But in addition to this, the epizootic also reveals the unique ecological conditions of nineteenth-century urban environments where many thousands of horses lived in dense, often ill-ventilated and poorly-drained, street railway stables where the epizootic flourished. The multi-species environments of Canadian and US cities in 1872-73 produced the biological conditions necessary for the widespread outbreak of epidemic crowd diseases among horses. The epizootic did not just have a disproportionate impact on urban environments, it was the product of urban environments.
As I continue with this research, I hope to further explore this argument and try to answer other questions about the epizootic. What effects did the epizootic have on veterinary medicine in Canada? Besides urban transportation, how else were the lives of urban dwellers in Canada affected by the temporary immobilization of many thousands of horses over the winter of 1872-73? What was the full range of the epizootic in Canada? How was the disease spread from city to city? How did governments respond to the disease?
6 thoughts on “1872-73 Epizootic or the Canadian Horse Distemper”
Sean, interesting post! Equine influenza is a really interesting disease. I should have a look around in our resources here at the vet college for you. Have you been in touch with anyone here at the college about it?
I haven’t yet been in touch with the archive at OVC. As you know, many of the records of the OVC during its years in Toronto in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have not survived. I would be very interested to know if anything about this epizootic still exists in the archives in Guelph. Hope you can make it to ASEH this year. We can chat about this further.
Sean, unfortunately I don’t think I can make it to ASEH. You’re right, college records are a bit thin from this period. I’m not sure what’s in the university archives but I’m currently organizing the OVC’s in-house archives. While we don’t have a lot of college records, we have a substantial volume of veterinary literature from the period, including McClure. It’s taking me awhile as the books, papers, journals, etc, are in a bit of a jumble in a storage room but if I find anything that may be of use, I can let you know.
Thanks so much. I appreciate it.
the effects of the 1872 Epizootic on the firehorses of Buffalo and Boston
Thanks for the reference. I have read a little about the impact on the Boston fire, but I hadn’t read anything yet about Buffalo.