News at Medicine - November 2014 - Medical historian reconstructs early Canadian epidemic

Medical historian reconstructs early Canadian epidemic
November 14, 2014
The 2014 Dr. Nigel Rusted Lectureship in Medical Humanities was presented Nov. 14 by Dr. James Moran, an associate professor in the History Department at the University of Prince Edward Island. His topic was St. Paul’s Bay Disease: Health Crisis in 18th-century Quebec.
In a captivating presentation, Dr. Moran illuminated the historical enigma of a disease known most commonly as St. Paul’s Bay Disease. This epidemic was a greatly feared infectious illness that occurred in dozens of parishes in the British colony from 1775-1790. It was considered to be syphilis of some kind that was not transmitted sexually. It began with small ulcers on the lips, tongue and mouth and developed into large ulcers in the glands of the throat, armpit and groin. The final stage was itchy scabs accompanied by rotting in the bones of the nose.

Faced with a disease that wasn’t well-understood, 18th-century physician James Bowman instructed parish priests to administer mercury in the form of mercurous chloride, and to keep track of patients’ progress.

“This caused the symptoms to subside, but they returned with even more strength in about six weeks,” said Dr. Moran. “The long-term effects were devastating and victims suffered greatly.”

Dr. Moran first became interested in St. Paul’s Bay Disease when he accidentally found records in the National Archives. “The scale of this disease is quite stunning – by the late 1780s the British were afraid of a racial extinction among the francophone population.”

So what happened to St. Paul’s Disease? “There is no evidence that the disease persisted through to the 19th century,” said Dr. Moran. “We would need to exhume a body to determine exactly what it was. It had an episodic arrival and departure.”
Dr. James Moran and Dr. Jim Connor, John Clinch Professor of Medical Humanities and History of Medicine. The annual Dr. Nigel Rusted Lectureship in Medical Humanities is organized through the office of the History of Medicine.