Bill Waiser

Dr. William Todd met smallpox epidemic with vaccination initiative but never officially credited

One of the more pithy sources for the western Canadian fur trade is George Simpson’s “character book.” During his tenure as overseas governor for the Hudson’s Bay Company, Simpson provided candid, sometimes harsh, assessments of 157 employees.

These jot-form sketches give some insight into the personality of the men who worked for the HBC. But they also reveal as much about Governor Simpson, who was obsessed with economy and efficiency and consequently tended to evaluate employees on their contribution to the company’s bottom line.

That was the case for Dr. William Todd, an Irish Protestant who served as a surgeon in the British Navy before joining the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1816. Over the next 35 years, Todd worked at posts from Hudson Bay to the Pacific and from the Red River Settlement to the Athabasca country.

Simpson’s “character book” treatment of Todd was mixed at best. He described the surgeon as “skilful in his profession and a tolerable Indian Trader, but not regular in business, nor is he an active bustling man.”

Simpson continued, “A man of fair conduct, perfectly honest … not much liked by his colleagues who think little of him altho’ he has a very good opinion of his own abilities.”

He saved his most biting comments for the end: “Has a tinge of radicalism about him, is over fond of a Glass of Grog, and would in a Civilized World be addicted to Pot House conviviality altho’ not a drunkard.”

Even though Dr. Todd never saw this 1832 assessment, he readily acknowledged that his medical work often took precedence over his other job as trader.

That was a blessing when the surgeon found himself on the front lines when a smallpox outbreak, equal in mortality to the 1781-82 scourge, raged across the northern grasslands in 1837.

The contagion came from the south. An annual supply boat from St. Louis carried the disease up the Missouri River to Fort Union in June 1837.

Indigenous peoples frequenting the post were immediately infected, culminating weeks later in what one eyewitness described as “the greatest destruction possible.”

The disease reached the Saskatchewan country by the early autumn of 1837. Dr Todd, then stationed at Fort Pelly in the Swan River district, was not sure from Indigenous peoples’ reports whether he was dealing with smallpox.

But instead of waiting for confirmation, he decided to use the new cowpox vaccine in the post’s medical supplies and treat the indigenous people in the Fort Pelly area. Todd also taught Indigenous headmen the procedure so that they could treat their followers, as well as sent fresh cowpox vaccine to other HBC posts to the west and north.

These preventative measures constituted “the first extensive vaccination program among the Indigenous peoples of western Canada.”

And they saved hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives because the disease was stopped from spreading beyond the Saskatchewan River. But the death toll on the northern plains was nonetheless staggering.

The mortality rate among the Assiniboine and Blackfoot — because they were not vaccinated — reportedly ranged from one-half to two-thirds. Some bands were effectively “shattered into tiny, starving remnants.”

The Cree and Saulteaux, by contrast, were largely spared and moved farther south and west in mixed bands into lands that had been emptied by the disease. The Cree, in particular, emerged from the epidemic as a dominant tribe, whose numbers continued to grow into the mid-19th century.

Todd’s decisive action made him a respected medicine man among the indigenous population. It has even been suggested that he was the most famous doctor in the Canadian North-West at the time.

Governor Simpson, however, not only failed to mention Todd’s efforts in his official company report on the epidemic, but took credit for having the foresight to send the cowpox vaccine inland in anticipation of a future smallpox outbreak.

The ill feelings between the two men did not end there. In 1849, Dr. Todd applied for promotion from chief trader to chief factor and additional remuneration for having served as both trader and surgeon. Neither request was supported by Simpson, and the HBC governor and council turned Todd down.

William Todd died a broken man at the Red River Settlement in December 1851. He may have been rightly proud of his medical reputation, but in Simpson’s fur trade world, only business mattered.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 


Photo:Smallpox had a devastating impact on the indigenous population of the western interior.
Photo courtesy: Library and Archives Canada PA-181599)

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Email Bill at bill.waiser@usask.ca

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers