Lawlor’s Island is a forgotten island in the
entrance of Novo Scotia’s Halifax Harbour, nestled between McNab’s Island and
Eastern Passage. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the site of
the only substantial, organized quarantine station on Canada’s Atlantic coast.
It was the first landfall for tens of thousands of immigrants, including two
thousand Doukhobors in 1899.
In his newly released book, Quarantine: What is Old is New: Halifax and the
Lawlor’s Island Quarantine Station 1866-1938, physician and historian Dr.
Ian Cameron tells the engaging story of Lawlor’s Island Quarantine Station and
its contribution to Canada’s medical, immigration and maritime history.
Cover of Quarantine.
The story begins in the 19th century, when the port
city of Halifax had an understandable fear of communicable diseases such as
typhus, cholera, typhoid fever and the plague. Following public demands for
government action, the quarantine station on Lawlor’s Island was established in
1866 to protect the population from these threats arriving at the port by ship
from all over the world by isolating people there who had, or were suspected of
harbouring, infectious disease.
In highly descriptive detail, Cameron explores how,
over the next seventy-two years, quarantine practices at Lawlor’s Island
reflected the changing face of how Canadians reacted to infectious disease.
Initially, there is a period of period of trial and error, and eventually
medical science provides an understanding of the disease process and its
rational management. As this quest to protect the public from infectious disease
evolves, there are countless examples of heroism, tragedy, human folly, cruelty,
government foot dragging, egos and partisan politics. Over time, there is
progress in communication, transportation, international cooperation and in
government response as officials move from unprepared reaction to preparation
with regulations, facilities, dedicated personnel and preventative vaccination
programs. Finally, there is the inevitability of change as the quarantine
station becomes outdated and obsolete, having outlived its original purpose, leading to
the closure of the facility in 1938.
In addition to providing insights into the medical practices and dread diseases
of the day, Quarantine also traces the fascinating history of maritime
commerce and transportation from the heyday of wooden ships sailing reluctantly
into the age of steel and steam. Halifax, then as now, was a focal point for
global trade, and the book tells the tale of ships that plied the world’s oceans
and seaports, transporting goods and human cargo, along with some of the most
devastating and debilitating diseases known to mankind. Lawlor’s Island, and the
men and women who worked there, were the first line of defence for Canada.
Quarantine is also about the immigrants who left their homes and braved
the perils of uncertain passage, crowding and disease. In this regard, Cameron
devotes an entire chapter to the Doukhobors, who in January of 1899 disembarked
the SS Lake Superior at Lawlor’s Island for twenty-seven days due to an outbreak
of smallpox. The arrival of nearly two thousand Russian-speaking immigrants
taxed the island’s resources to the utmost. Yet despite cold weather, lack of
facilities and other inconveniences, the hardy and resourceful Doukhobors,
headed by Count Sergey Tolstoy, together with the practical-minded quarantine
officers, cooperated to make their sojourn a success.
Photo of Lawlor's Island, Nova
Scotia by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.
Like every good story, Quarantine has some intriguing characters. As an
example, the Doukhobor story is an account of the interplay between two of the
most colourful and compelling characters in the book, Count Sergey Tolstoy and
Dr. Frederick Montizambert. Additionally, there are the quarantine officers –
leaders of drive and vision who got things done, and whose names read like a
“who’s who” list of the establishment in old Halifax. Finally, there are the
people who were little known but essential: the nursing matrons who lived on
Lawlor’s Island and cared for the sick and the shipmasters who quietly and
reliably transported patients and doctors in all weather, day and night from
Halifax to ships in the harbour to the quarantine station and back again, as
well as the many chaplains, stewards, matrons, orderlies, engineers and guards
who served on the island.
For those interested in conducting further research, Quarantine is
extensively indexed according to: historic figures connected with Halifax and
Lawlor’s Island; medical personnel associated with the quarantine service;
marine transportation and ships; global seaports; immigration; as well as
medical and scientific terminology related to what were known as major and minor
diseases subject to quarantine at that time.
Author Dr. Ian Arthur Cameron.
Cameron, a Professor of Family Medicine at Dalhousie
University in Halifax, has had a long love affair with Lawlor’s Island. As he
reflects in the book’s introduction, “Islands can be prisons or sanctuaries.
They can be firm land after a watery passage or the first glimpse of a new
homeland. Lawlor’s Island has been all of these, but what has drawn me back to
the island time and again is the decaying wharf on the northeast corner, a large
rusting container the size of a box car, the eight grave markers on the north
end of the island, the scattered stone foundations over the northern two-thirds
of the island, the cistern and the great fallen water tower. What purpose did
these structures serve? When were they built? Who was involved?” These are some
of the questions he addresses in Quarantine.
It is Cameron’s hope that the book will provide readers with some important
lessons from the past and will inform their future decisions with respect to yet
undiscovered forms of disease. Should new epidemics threaten to arrive on our
shores from around the world, the concept of quarantine may have to be
It is also hoped that Quarantine will raise awareness about Lawlor’s
Island’s importance as a heritage site. At present the island is in an overgrown
and dilapidated state. In 2003, Hurricane Juan uprooted many trees adding to the
haphazard condition of the old quarantine station. However, remnants of many
structures – wharves, foundations, wells, cisterns and sterilization units – can
still be seen, along with the remains of the cemetery – the last unmarked
resting place for hundreds of souls. Perhaps one day, the various levels of
government will see value in acknowledging the importance of this place in the
history of Canada and the site can be restored. The old quarantine station
deserves to be remembered.
Quarantine: What is Old is New: Halifax and the Lawlor’s Island Quarantine
Station 1866-1938 is a 207-page soft-cover book published by New World
Publishing (ISBN 1-895814-34-7) and is available