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    Flies help make Montreal Canada’s deadliest city

    In the past two blogs we explored the fatal effects of bad milk and unsanitary slums. Add flies to the list. Flies were seen by the Montreal Star in 1910 as another cause of an infant mortality rate so high that Montreal was described by later historians as “one of the deadliest cities in the world.”

    There were other factors that also caused fewer than one in four of the city’s infants to fail to live as long as one year during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But infant mortality was not the only thing that made Montreal the unhealthiest city in Canada, and possibly North America.

    From 1871 to 1914, Montreal’s infant mortality rate ranged from nearly one in three more than one in five (294 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1871; 220 in 1910-14), according to historians Paul-André Linteau, René Durococher and Jean-Claude Robert (Quebec: A History, 1867 -1929, translated by Robert Chodos, Toronto, 1983).

    In addition to flies, unsafe water and drinking milk resulting in “infantile diarrhea” were major facts or in baby deaths. The water problem was largely solved by filtration plant in 1914 but it was 10 years later before the city’s milk was pasteurized.

    Smallpox, tuberculosis and diphtheria were among the contagious diseases that made Montreal a dangerous city for adults as well as infants. Three thousand Montrealers died from smallpox in an epidemic in 1885-86. City council ordered compulsory vaccination but “French Canadians refused to be vaccinated” and were dragged by police to medical offices. Smallpox was eventually eradicated after 1903 when the provincial government ordered compulsory vaccination at all cities. Diphtheria continued to take the lives of Quebecers long after preventive methods were successfully applied else. Tuberculosis killed an average of 3,000 Quebecers a year in the first three decades of the twentieth century while Montreal had the highest rate of TB deaths in North America.

    But flies were the concern of the Montreal Star when it called for “most strenuous educational efforts” to warn Montrealers that the house fly is not “a sort of cheerful home companion,” in the following item published September 2, 1910.

    More than once the Star has called attention to the common house fly as a probable source of infant mortality in summer, which gives Montreal an unenviable reputation, and which shows no diminution each succeeding year. Three years ago we pointed out the results of investigation in New York. They trace their source of trouble to the sewer entrances, and the mortality zone was clearly defined all along the water front, just about the limit of a fly’s flight. They had flies caught in this zone, placed on gelatin, and collected myriads of dangerous bacterilli. The answer, then, was to keep the flies out of the house. Unfortunately it is just in the crowded tenement districts, where flies are thickest, that screened windows and screened doors are rarely to be found.

    Familiarity breeds contempt, and it is an unfortunate fact that a very large proportion of those in the most dangerous districts rather look upon the fly as a sort of cheerful home companion, to be chased off the food, perhaps, before it is actually put in the mouth. It is to be feared that most strenuous educational efforts will have to be used before the average tenement household will learn that the common fly is more deadly than the serpent. The poison spread by it is taken directly into the system. To tell them that any food on which a fly had lighted, that any milk into which a fly had fallen, should be thrown into the sewer, that even a dish or drinking utensil upon which a fly had walked, should be scalded before being used, would cause most of them to smile. They will tell you that there were flies in the time of their fathers and grandfathers. To point out that modern conditions are different and that the danger is a real one is rarely convincing.

    Our neighbors in the United States are carrying on a most active education campaign, and the fly-fighting committee of the American Civic Association, Washington, has issued millions of one of the most striking circulars of warning and instruction that we have ever seen. “Either man must kill the fly — or the fly will kill the man,” is the motto.

    Related blogs. •Bad milk makes Montreal’s child mortality world’s worst. • Toronto slums had chickens in the living rooms.

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    TAGS: Flies, Montral, Mortality, Hygiene, Contaminated milk, Slums, Infantile diarrhea, Smallpox, Tuberculosis, Diphtheria, Contagious diseases.

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