North America's forgotten plague

Smallpox killed more than 20,000 Canadians in 1862. Why isn't there a memorial commemorating the epidemic?

By John Douglas Belshaw
May 4, 2013 10:00PM (UTC)
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A vial of smallpox vaccine, Dryvax, made by Wyeth Laboratories (March 11, 2003)

This piece originally appeared on The Walrus.

The WalrusA LEAN FIGURE cast in bronze kneels beside a child, a tiny lancet in his hand poised to strike at the girl’s left shoulder. Another patient waits her turn, upper arm revealed. The memorial, outside the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, celebrates the global conquest of smallpox in 1980, a milestone that belongs on any list of reasons to be cheerful: Variola major gorged on our species for thousands of years, blazing a trail of hideous pustules that disfigured victims’ bodies and faces and wiped out communities. Children and the elderly were especially vulnerable, and those not felled by the disease were sometimes blinded by it.

The Geneva memorial honours the physician as warrior in the eradication of smallpox. On a Pfizer campus in Pennsylvania, a twin statue tells a different story, positioning Big Pharma as the hero. Neither monument, however, recalls the many casualties of smallpox, and this says a great deal about what we choose to remember.


One of the last major outbreaks in Canada began in the spring of 1862 when a ship from San Francisco arrived in Victoria and patient zero stepped ashore. Throughout the summer and autumn, smallpox raced north and east, up the coast and inland through canyons of tightly packed settlements that were perfectly suited to its appetite.
variola major was a key factor, and the epidemic of the 1860s gave newcomers “a terrible advantage,” as historical geographer Richard Mackie observed in The Wilderness Profound.

The colonial narrative in western Canada showcases tales of frontier progress, Confederation and railways while smallpox gets elbowed into the prologue. The French historian Jacques Le Goff has written that mastering “memory and forgetfulness is one of the great preoccupations of the classes, groups and individuals who have dominated and continue to dominate historical societies.” The absence of a memorial to smallpox is, in other words, an act of purposeful amnesia, a way to cheat collective memory. What followed on the heels of the 1862–63 epidemic — reserves, residential schools, alcoholism, systemic discrimination, poverty and homelessness — can be better understood if we first set a place at history’s table for smallpox, not just in BC but across Canada.

A monument to the epidemic would do three things. It would recall that grim plague and its tens of thousands of victims. It would say something about the society we have since become. And it would testify to the 150 years of forgetfulness in between.

John Douglas Belshaw

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Canada Disease History Medicine Smallpox The Walrus