Last year, I gave a short research talk at York University on some new research I am currently working on for a forthcoming presentation at the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History. This year’s conference will be in Toronto so I thought that this case study of a little-known continent-wide epidemic of equine influenza that started in Toronto in October 1872 would be an appropriate way to talk about my broader research on the history of animals in Canadian cities in the nineteenth century.
This brief research talk focused on my discovery of the following historical document, Diseases of the Horse (1873) by Dr. Robert McClure. This edition of McClure’s veterinary guide included an appendix on treatments for the 1872 equine influenza epizootic or, as it was known, “the Canadian horse distemper.” Dr. Andrew Smith, principal of the Ontario Veterinary College in Toronto, wrote a brief report on the epizootic and some of the recommended remedies for the mysterious illness that spread outwards from Toronto to nearly all parts of urban North America between October 1872 and March 1873. This document provided me with my first Canadian source on the event and it outlined in detail the origins of the outbreak.
Of course, this case study demonstrates the tremendous significance of horses to the functioning of nineteenth-century cities as the immobilization of entire fleets of horses brought Toronto, Montreal, Boston, New York, Chicago, and many more cities to a halt. But in addition to this, the epizootic also reveals the unique ecological conditions of nineteenth-century urban environments where many thousands of horses lived in dense, often ill-ventilated and poorly-drained, street railway stables where the epizootic flourished. The multi-species environments of Canadian and US cities in 1872-73 produced the biological conditions necessary for the widespread outbreak of epidemic crowd diseases among horses. The epizootic did not just have a disproportionate impact on urban environments, it was the product of urban environments.
As I continue with this research, I hope to further explore this argument and try to answer other questions about the epizootic. What effects did the epizootic have on veterinary medicine in Canada? Besides urban transportation, how else were the lives of urban dwellers in Canada affected by the temporary immobilization of many thousands of horses over the winter of 1872-73? What was the full range of the epizootic in Canada? How was the disease spread from city to city? How did governments respond to the disease?
Sean Kheraj is an assistant professor in the Department of History at York University. He blogs at http://seankheraj.com and he is the host of the Nature’s Past Canadian environmental history podcast series.