Health care system responds to Halifax Explosion

Camp Hill Hospital: 70 Years of Caring, 1917 -1987.
Camp Hill Hospital, newly opened, was equipped to care for 250 to 300 patients; 1,400 were admitted the first day of the explosion. Camp Hill Hospital: 70 Years of Caring, 1917 -1987.

“Seconds before 9:05 a.m. the Mont Blanc blew up with a force that shattered her 3,000 tons of steel…..Chunks of metal crashed through roofs, damaged ships, killed and maimed people. Windows were broken more than 50 miles away. The shock was even felt in Sydney, Cape Breton, more than 270 miles northeast.” 1

In that moment on Dec. 6, 1917, Halifax was thrown into chaos. Roughly 9,000 people were injured and more than 1,900 killed, although determining precise numbers was difficult in the early aftermath of the disaster; even recent estimates vary somewhat. Newspapers in the days following the explosion were lined with descriptions of unidentified dead, as well as details about those still missing from loved ones desperate to find them.

The health care system faced a challenge of a magnitude not seen before or since. Local medical personnel – and medical support from across Canada and the United States – were quick to respond to the crisis.

Camp Hill Hospital, newly opened, was designed to accommodate between 250 and 300 patients; 1,400 were admitted the day of the explosion. “While every patient admitted was given at least a mattress on which to lie, the hospital was extremely crowded with patients being three deep in the corridors and occupying every room.”2

Beds at the Victoria General (VG) were already fully occupied the day of the explosion, although interim superintendent Charles Puttner, the VG’s chief pharmacist, turned no one away. The scene is described in The Halifax Explosion: December 6, 1917: “It was impossible to get all the patients inside the hospital at once and many were simply laid on the ground outside the building, while the rescuers hurried off for others.”3

Due to the need for immediate medical treatment of injuries and the pressure on local hospitals to care for the more acutely injured, St. John’s Ambulance Brigade, Victorian Order of Nurses and nurses of Red Cross voluntary aid department treated those with minor injuries at home or at “dressing stations” located throughout the city.4

Emergency hospitals were also set up, including at the YMCA on Barrington Street. Started as a standard emergency hospital, this location was quickly turned into a maternity hospital due to the number of pregnant women giving birth at the time of the explosion.5

Soon after the explosion, a train left Halifax to transport some survivors to Truro for care. Arriving in Truro, they came to find that many Truro doctors had already headed to Halifax to help. However, Truro played a major role in caring for explosion victims, “serving almost as a peripheral hospital for Halifax,” said Dr. Jock Murray. 6

Dr. W.B. Moore, who practiced in Kentville, was among those asked to board a special relief train for Halifax. He shared his account of events in a personal narrative provided to the Halifax Disaster Record Office:

“At once I prepared to do as requested, and was gratified shortly afterwards to find that willing response had been made by all available medical men and nurses of the town and vicinity, who were at the station and entrained for Halifax. At Wolfville and Windsor there was the same gratifying response to the appeal for aid…”7

A train from Pictou County brought more medical personnel and supplies and returned to New Glasgow with patients for Aberdeen Hospital.8 In Halifax’s The Daily Echo a few days after the explosion, a headline read “NEW GLASGOW NOBLY ROSE TO EMERGENCY” and noted, “A citizens’ committee was appointed to consider what the town could do to help. A big school of twelve classrooms was commandeered and on Friday morning the committee started to equip it as a hospital. By Saturday night accommodation had been provided for 200 patients.”

Due to a blizzard that hit Dec. 7, relief from the United States was delayed in arriving. On Dec. 8, a relief train organized by the State of Massachusetts and the American Red Cross arrived in Halifax with 12 surgeons, 10 nurses and equipment and supplies for “a completely furnished war hospital.”

The first train from Boston arrived on the afternoon of Dec. 8 and a relief hospital was set up at Bellevue on Spring Garden Road. A second train from Boston arrived Dec. 9 and set up a hospital at Saint Mary’s College on Windsor St. 9

Medical professionals from New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Montreal, Toronto, Rhode Island and Maine also arrived to help.10

The focus of these professionals was to relieve exhausted local health professionals who had been working virtually non-stop.

Local newspaper The Daily Echo lauded the efforts of health professionals in the early days after the explosion, “No one will ever be able to measure the extent of this heroic, unselfish work. The consciousness of duty well done must in most instances be their only reward, because there is no profession less willing to accept recognition than the medical profession.”

Sources:

1 Kitz, Janet F. Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery, p. 25. Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 1989.

2 Camp Hill Hospital: 70 Years of Caring, 1917 -1987.

3, 7 Metson, Graham, ed. The Halifax Explosion: December 6, 1917, p. 106.  Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 1978.

4, 8, 9 Flemming, David B. Explosion in Halifax Harbour: The Illustrated Account of a Disaster that Shook the World, pp. 62, 64, 67. Halifax: Formac Publishing Company, 2004.

5, 6, 10 Murray, Jock. The Medical Response to the Halifax Explosion, public talk at Halifax Central Library, Nov. 29, 2017.