In its Monday, July 4, 1904 edition, The Montreal Star reported the astonishing and shocking fact that during the previous week 114 infants had died within the City of Montreal. (For this purpose, infant is defined as a child under two years of age.) It was further divulged that the total death rate for that week came in at 186, well above the normal average for the municipality. The peculiar mores of the time also necessitated the disclosure of the religious background of each of the defunct. Accordingly, 168 Catholics, 15 Protestants, and 3 Jews expired during the period June 27 through to July 2 inclusive. The reported cause of death was: Infantile debility – 106; consumption and other chest diseases – 13; whooping cough – 3; typhoid fever – 3; and measles – 2.

The dispatch went on as well to chastise mothers – especially young ones – for their implied responsibility for these appalling statistics.

In truth, the deceased children were extremely young – 71 under the age of six months, 33 between the age of six months and one year, and 10 between the age of one and two years. “Speaking of the heavy mortality among children last week the Medical Health Officer, Dr. Laberge, said the great cause of this mortality was due to the ignorance of young mothers of how to take care of their babies. What should be done was to organize an energetic society, which would have physicians attached to it, and whose duty it would be to instruct young mothers in all matters pertaining to the care of infants.

“Continuing the Medical Health Officer said many young mothers did not know how ill their babies were until it was too late to save them. If physicians were employed to go daily into the poorer sections of the city and give advice and medicines free, hundreds of lives would be saved every summer.”

The general tone of the newspaper story (and the Medical Health Officer’s comments) was somewhat condescending and, in addition, seemed to spurn the degree to which abject destitution afflicted the poorer classes of Montreal society. After all, was not “infant debility” often a medical euphemism for starvation? Nevertheless, the item proceeded: “Very frequently infants were taken suddenly ill on account of not being properly fed, and being neglected as to cleanliness. A society of women should be organized whose work it would be to teach mothers the care of infants. If these reforms were inaugurated, the Medical Health Officer was sure the heavy death rate in the city during the summer months would soon lessen.”

The subsequent day (July 5), a follow-up article and an editorial appeared in that same newspaper. The former made reference to the belief amongst Montreal’s aldermen that something had to be done immediately with regard to this city’s unacceptably high death rate. On this occasion, the Medical Health Officer postulated  that this tragic situation was also aggravated by the lingering presence of an inordinate number ‘privy pits’ within the city. According to Mr. Laberge, “these pits were exceedingly dangerous to the health of infants.” The Star’s report continued with the comment that he (Laberge) was “glad to say that for some years the pits had been decreasing in number, thanks to civic ordinances against them; at the same time there were still far too many such pest holes in the city.”

The next morning, the Medical Health Officer released the following data which clearly showed the dramatic decline in the number of ‘back houses’ to be found within the city. For instance, in the year 1901 there was still an astonishing high total of 8891 ‘privy pits’ in Montreal while two years later, that number had been reduced to 1549 – a very significant decrease. Of course, most of these “pest holes” were found in the impoverished parts of the city. In 1901, for example, St. Ann’s (the poor, predominantly Irish ward of Montreal) led the unfortunate way with 1459 outdoor privies and, in 1903, again dominated the city but with the greatly reduced number of 252 of these disease carrying, unhygienic, anachronistic oddities.


It must be stated that Montreal’s death rate in June of 1904 was, indeed, very high, standing at an incredible 23 per thousand. This contrasted very unfavourably with many other cities of a comparable size. For example, Chicago’s rate stood at 13.5 (always per thousand); Hamilton, Ont. – 12.09; Cincinnati – 13.08; London, Ont. – 13.08; St. Louis, Mo. – 13.03; Hull – 18.3; Providence, R.I. – 18.5; New York – 19.1; Philadelphia – 19.2; San Francisco – 19.4; Boston – 20; Baltimore – 23; Mobile, Al. – 23.09; New Orleans – 24.08; Ottawa – 26.02; Quebec – 27.02; and Three Rivers (Trois Rivières) – 36.01.

In 1904, of one hundred Canadian and American cities for which statistics were obtained, Three Rivers had the highest rate while Hamilton came in with the lowest. The average death rate for most North American cities was 20.1 while seventy – five European cities averaged a mortality rate of 19.07. For six South American cities, the ratio was a staggering 32.01 per thousand.

As previously mentioned, The Star also ran that same day (July 5) an editorial about the issue of high infant mortality and the Medical Health Officer’s analysis of the problem. Entitled “The Deadly Feeding Bottle” the dispatch asserted that “there is something in the doctor’s diagnosis of the case at any rate. We suppose there was a time when most human mothers, like the mothers of animals in general, knew by instinct how to take care of their young; but that was before the era of feeding-bottles. They learn something of the modern method from the advice of people who do not know much more about it than they do, and a good deal more from experiments on the babies.”

For the editorialists of The Montreal Star, it was clear. “The source of most of the infantile mortality is the feeding-bottle, a deadly weapon in the hands of inexperience. If there is anything the matter with the feeding-bottle, the baby is in an unfortunate plight, indeed.”

Unquestionably, by twenty-first century standards, the editorial is permeated with an aura of sexism and male condescension.  How else could the following be interpreted? “That there is something wrong the mother soon discovers, and then maternal instinct goes ahead and makes mistakes galore. Changes are made in the food which may be right or may be wrong, but are too frequently purely experimental.”

While, according to The Star, “poverty, bad air, bad water, high temperature, sudden changes of temperature, all find their victims,” the newspaper, nevertheless, went on to declare its solidarity with Dr. Laberge’s assertion that “many valuable lives could be saved with a little educational work among the mothers.”

Such was the perceived importance of this issue that only two days later The Star ran yet another editorial on the topic of the unacceptably high infant mortality rate and its causes.

EDITORIAL, July 7, 1904.

“Our privy pit statistics, which we publish every now and then, make edifying reading. That a city the size of Montreal should have a single privy pit within its borders is a scandal of first class dimensions. A man might as well be permitted to keep a germ-culture plant in his back-yard with the cover off. It is encouraging to know that the number is being reduced; but the Health Committee should be in a position to report their entire disappearance before another summer comes around.

“The inspection of milk is another safeguard against disease – particularly among infants – which should be vastly improved. As Recorder Weir remarked the other day, we are more interested in clean milk than in rich food. It would be better to have water than dirt mixed with the babies’ food. The city might well make an extra effort during the heated term to see that the various milk dealers supplying the citizens take proper plans to clean and sterilize their vessels.

“The delivery of food is a kindred subject; for in no way can food accumulate dangerous filth more easily than by being carried uncovered through our dusty streets. This is a reform which the house-keepers can secure with legal assistance. They have only to refuse to deal with grocers and bakers who do not take pains to deliver their goods in a sanitary manner.

“The terrible ‘slaughter of the innocents’ which has so recently shocked us, has called attention to all these avenues by which disease finds so ready an access to our homes. For humanity’s sake alone, we should take immediate and effective steps to close them. Nor can it be imagined that any home is safe so long as all are threatened. A proper amount of general attention to these things would mean the saving of many lives in Montreal in the course of a year.”

On July 9, the same newspaper again took up the question of “the impure milk evil.” In an article entitled “Health Committee to Grapple with Important Milk Problem,” The Star reported that another meeting of the Health Committee had been held at City Hall to discuss the issue yet again. The Chairman, Mr. Dagenais, “stated that he, with several other members of the committee, had last evening called on a number of the surgeons of the city and discussed with them the milk question. They stated that it was one of great gravity and that steps should at once be taken to provide chemically pure milk for the city babies.”

It was further reported that the Finance Committee would be asked to appropriate $4,000 to $5,000 to establish stations throughout the city for the allocation of free (or, at the very least, very low priced) quality milk to the poor of Montreal. At the same encounter, the issue of this city’s water (also considered to be a major factor in the high mortality rate) came to the surface. The Health Committee decided that a rigorous evaluation would be made of the water by three distinct authorities – one from McGill, another from Laval University (then based in this city, and the forerunner to the Université de Montréal), and a third to be appointed by the municipality. “There will be fifty-two different analyses extending over a period of a year,” The Star divulged.

In so far as milk and infant mortality were concerned, the same newspaper had run the previous day (July 8) a brief item about a discussion between Mr. Recorder Weir and Alderman Dagenais, chairman of the Health Committee. During the conversation, Recorder Weir informed Dagenais that it was his opinion that if the quality of milk within the city limits were better, the infant mortality rate would drop significantly. In that regard, the alderman said:

“What should be done is to establish in different parts of the city dispensaries or depots where we could get milk from the surrounding country and distribute it to citizens. The farmers could arrange to supply the milk in sterilized bottles, say, of two or three ounces capacity. This milk would be specially for the use of young children. Mothers would send to these depots for sufficient milk to last twenty-four hours.

“Such a scheme would cost money, but I will go before the Finance Committee and see what can be done. No one can be more affected than I am at the loss of so many children’s lives.”

In 1904, it was customary that milk be delivered in cans and not bottles. This practice, in the opinion of the city milk inspector, Dr. Demers, was only aggravating an already bad situation. Furthermore, the good doctor felt that milk should not be kept in refrigerators next to other food items, a routine which he felt contributed to the contamination of the product. He also felt – for whatever reason – that grocery stores should not be permitted to market milk.

In so far as the question of milk being stored in cans is concerned, Recorder Weir that very day had levied a heavy fine on one Aaron Engel, who lived at 842 St. Lawrence Main. “Move those dirty, rotten milk cans over in front of the newspaper reporters so that they may act as jurors in this case,” bellowed Justice Weir. “I never saw such a tremendous amount of filth before.”

MilkAbove, milk cans sit in the summer sun at St. Louis – du – Mile End Station

Engel was arraigned for both peddling milk without a license and for peddling ‘dirty’ milk. According to The Star, “The Court Crier at once obeyed the command of the court, and proceeded to haul the dirty cans over to the reporter’s table. Before he had completed his work, however, there were no jurors left. They had all decamped. The stench from the cans was too much for them, and they sought new quarters at the other side of the room.” The city inspector said that the milk in one of Engel’s cans was sufficient to kill 3,000 children!

Early the following week, The Star reported upon the creation of an organization entitled L’Association de la Goutte de Lait. The society in question was formed as the result of a meeting Saturday night, July 9, at the residence of Dr. Dubé. It proposed “to furnish milk in a chemically pure form to all the children of the city.”

The meeting at the good doctor’s home declared that the society was determined to begin its important work immediately. “Arrangements will be made with milkmen whose record has been the best in the past, to furnish a supply of milk which will be treated in such a way as to free it from all germs. This will be superintended by the Montreal Foundling Hospital and the Sisters of Mercy, if they are willing to cooperate with the society.” The news item went on to detail how, at a later date, L’Association de la Goutte de Lait would purchase “an apparatus to purify such milk as the society may require.”

Considerable detail about the project was offered in The Star article. “Chemically pure milk will be distributed in bottles, hermetically sealed, to eight or nine dispensaries throughout the city, where it will be sold at cost price. It will be given free of charge (along with ice) to those who are unable to pay. At the start the society will only attempt to supply the sick babies but later both sick and well will benefit by the movement. Each bottle will contain only enough food for one feeding. In this way, the growth of malignant bacteria in the standing milk is prevented.”

The Monday newspaper report went on further to inform their readers that pamphlets “on the care of babies” would soon be dispersed to parents through the milk distribution centres to be established. City Council would create the brochure while the Finance Committee would be expected to pay for the total bill, estimated at $4,000 – $5,000. Clearly, some limited measures to improve the situation were being taken.

Yet, in spite of these endeavours of the city’s Health Department and a newly formed, well-intentioned Pure Milk League, Montreal’s death rate by the middle of the month (July 10 – July 16) improved only marginally. The total number of deaths for that period was 181 – a drop of only five from the period two weeks earlier. Of this number, 105 were infants – down nine from the late June, early July returns. Clearly it would require a long term strategy to turn the situation around.

In so far as the ‘privy pits’ were concerned, the situation was, nevertheless, somewhat encouraging. The Star, in a very brief item, reported on July 13, 1904 that the number of privy pits had been reduced to 1187, with only one left in the centre ward of the city, and within a year or two all had, thankfully, disappeared.


First published in September 2005 in Connections, the quarterly of the Quebec Family History Society