Addressing Winnipeg's High Pre-WW1 Mortality Rates

by George Siamandas


As related to health issues, Winnipeg was a hell hole before WW1. Diseases were running rampant. Prayers were said at Salvation Army meetings for the health of Winnipeg's citizens. The water supply was very poor. The result was very bad public health. In 1905 for example, Winnipeg had the worst typhoid death rate of any city in North America or Europe.

The Hospitals were built to accommodate the people suffering from communicable diseases. Epidemics had spread through Winnipeg before: smallpox, typhoid, diphtheria, scarlet fever and tuberculosis. On February 27, 1914, the new King George Isolation Hospital took in its first patient.

These outbreaks were centred amongst Winnipeg's poor immigrant populations that lived in poor tenement housing. The General Hospital had been trying to deal with outbreaks but told the city it could no longer take care of communicable diseases. The city established a commission that recommended the immediate building of municipal hospitals. The city accepted its role to address the problem and they bought 25 acres in Riverview part of Fort Rouge to establish new hospitals under the new Winnipeg Hospital Commission.


It was opened by the Duke of Connaught who came out to lay its cornerstone in 1912 together with the official opening of the King Edward memorial Hospital. The King George was built to accommodate scarlet fever, diphtheria, measles and other communicable diseases. It was designed by Herbert Ruff who had come to Winnipeg in 1904 after training in Chicago. It was state of the art for its day and had been built as a world class hospital. And at a cost of $800,000 it cost four times what the King Edward had cost to build. The hospital filled up immediately! During 1919 the year the Spanish flu hit in a world wide epidemic, the King George treated 3,789 during the winter season.

The city took the job of health very seriously and developed an extensive system of public health services. All the way from baby clinics, visiting nurses, Thirteen visiting nurses made 47,000 visits in 1922. There was also a department for sanitary inspections of food, dairy etc.

By the time the hospitals were built and the health system was in place in the early 1920s infant mortality dropped from 181 deaths per 1000 in 1910 to 82 deaths per thousand. Similarly, typhoid fell from 20 deaths per 100,000 to 3 deaths per 100,000.

But apparently the improved water from the just completed Shoal Lake aqueduct also deserves a portion of this improvement in public health. In 1923 the average hospital stay for a person with a communicable disease was 26 days while tuberculosis patients stayed 152 days. Cost per patient per day was $3.09 in 1923. And by this time the death rate dropped from one of the highest to one of the lowest in North America.

In the 1950s the King George became the centre for children with polio. The hospitals evolved and they came to serve geriatrics, and now provide long term care for about 380 persons.


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