How dis­as­ter sparked re­form

Deadly Hal­i­fax Ex­plo­sion en­cour­aged pub­lic health changes

The Welland Tribune - - NATIONAL -

MICHAEL TUT­TON

HAL­I­FAX — Ex­perts are gath­er­ing Wednesday for dis­cus­sions that in­clude a lit­tle-known af­ter­ef­fect of the dis­as­trous Hal­i­fax Ex­plo­sion — it sparked a burst of health re­forms that saved many hun­dreds of lives.

His­to­rian David Suther­land said Hal­i­fax saw a flurry of ac­tiv­ity to re­duce in­fant mor­tal­ity, erad­i­cate tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and bring ba­sic san­i­ta­tion in “an ini­tial eupho­ria that we are going to re-in­vent the city.”

He is among the pan­el­lists gath­er­ing at Dal­housie Univer­sity to dis­cuss the so­cial changes brought about by the erup­tion of a burn­ing mu­ni­tions ship that flat­tened much of the city’s north end and killed or in­jured close to a fifth of its pop­u­la­tion on Dec. 6, 1917.

Suther­land’s new book, We Har­bor No Evil De­sign (Univer­sity of Toronto Press), de­scribes the ar­ray of re­lief ef­forts in the city after the Ex­plo­sion.

Michelle He­bert Boyd, who doc­u­mented the shifts in so­cial work and pub­lic health in her book En­riched by Catas­tro­phe (Fern­wood Pub­lish­ing), said the tragedy brought pas­teur­iza­tion of milk, wa­ter treat­ment, and a health cen­tre that was “the envy of the pub­lic health world.”

“After the ex­plo­sion it was seen as an op­por­tu­nity to re­build and to re­build in a bet­ter way,” she said in an in­ter­view.

As her 2007 book notes, “Hal­i­fax’s in­ad­e­quate in­fra­struc­ture made the en­tire city de­serv­ing of the ti­tle ‘Dear, dirty old Hal­i­fax,’ re­gard­less of where one lived. Prior to the Ex­plo­sion, many well-off and poorer neigh­bour­hoods shared in com­mon their un­paved streets, open sew­ers, and dodgy pub­lic util­i­ties.”

Though the fourth-largest city in the coun­try at the time, Hal­i­fax’s tax base was de­clin­ing and by the be­gin­ning of the First World War, sewage still flowed in some streets, He­bert Boyd wrote.

This changed after the Ex­plo­sion that killed al­most 2,000, in­jured 9,000, blinded 200 and left 25,000 home­less, as phi­lan­thropists and gov­ern­ments poured mil­lions of dol­lars in re­lief into restora­tion and re­lief ef­fort.

Ini­tially, large num­bers of peo­ple ini­tially crowded into small, tem­po­rary build­ings, and the spread of dis­eases such as the Span­ish in­fluenza epi­demic of 1919 and still­births re­lated to syphilis grew at an alarm­ing pace.

The Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion, a char­ity that pro­moted pub­lic health, ap­proached the Mas­sachusetts-Hal­i­fax Re­lief Com­mit­tee and sent ex­perts to study how to bring the city a mod­ern pub­lic health sys­tem.

By April 30, 1925, the health com­mis­sion con­cluded, “while all the im­prove­ment may not have been due to the ef­forts of the Com­mis­sion, it may justly claim the ma­jor share ... the drop in mor­tal­ity ... means ap­prox­i­mately a sav­ing of 480 lives an­nu­ally.”

How­ever, his­to­ri­ans are still dis­cussing how evenly the ben­e­fits of the so­cial and health re­forms were dis­trib­uted.

He­bert Boyd says her re­search in­di­cated a mem­ber of city coun­cil suc­cess­fully lob­bied to have a health clinic cre­ated by the com­mis­sion shifted to Dal­housie Univer­sity, in a wealth­ier part of the city.

“It was harder for peo­ple in the north end to ac­cess the care they needed,” she said. “Things ear­marked to help peo­ple hurt by the ex­plo­sion was qui­etly taken away from them.”

On the other hand, Suther­land notes the cen­tre at Dal­housie Univer­sity con­tin­ued to pro­vide good care, and he says he “sus­pects” many peo­ple harmed in the Ex­plo­sion con­tin­ued to use it.

How­ever, He­bert Boyd says an op­por­tu­nity to bring im­prove­ments to the im­pov­er­ished black com­mu­nity of Africville was missed in the af­ter­math.

“While Rich­mond was be­ing re­con­structed and im­proved after the Ex­plo­sion, the main sewer line was brought di­rectly through Africville to empty into Bed­ford Basin; Africville res­i­dents were not them­selves given sewer ser­vice, and to add in­sult to in­jury, they had to en­dure raw sewage from their Rich­mond neigh­bours run­ning through their back­yards when­ever a line broke,” she wrote in her book.

Suther­land says the ini­tial en­thu­si­asm for a re­mak­ing of the city de­creased in the mid 1920s, amidst a gen­eral eco­nomic de­cline that wors­ened in the Great De­pres­sion.

For ex­am­ple, by the Sec­ond World War, the city was still ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a pre­ventable out­burst of diph­the­ria, and a univer­sity fac­ulty to train so­cial work­ers wasn’t es­tab­lished un­til the 1940s, he said.

“There’s a lapse in the early 1920s, and then con­tin­u­ing for two gen­er­a­tions and in­stead of op­ti­mism and high ex­pec­ta­tions, there’s a shift to more pes­simistic dis­il­lu­sion­ment,” he said in an in­ter­view.

“The no­tion that we will eman­ci­pate those on the mar­gins, that cer­tainly does not hap­pen.”

Still, some ba­sic changes in health care en­dured and were built upon, says Glo­ria Stephens, a re­tired reg­is­tered nurse who was also sched­uled to speak on Wednesday.

The pres­i­dent of the Nurs­ing His­tory Nova Sco­tia So­ci­ety says a fresh fo­cus on treat­ing chil­dren led to the cre­ation of a des­ig­nated ma­ter­nity hos­pi­tal.

“YoumaysaytheGraceMa­ter­nity Hos­pi­tal was birthed from the Hal­i­fax Ex­plo­sion and they started a school of nurses who spe­cial­ized in ma­ter­nity care, so that was the first type of nurses be­ing des­ig­nated to a spe­cific area,” she said.

MARINE HIS­TORY COL­LEC­TION, NOVA SCO­TIA MU­SEUM HAND­OUT/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

A man looks at dam­age cre­ated by the Hal­i­fax Ex­plo­sion.

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