Disease and Hygiene in New France

Note: This is a two-part post on Health Care in New France. Part 1 will explore diseases, hygiene issues, and how to survive in New France. Part 2 will discuss health care professionals, treatments, and theories.

A sketch of Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal (by H. Giroux, date unknown). Founded by Jeanne Mance (co-founder of Montreal) in 1642, the hospital is still in use today, making it the oldest hospital in Canada. Click here to see what it looks like nowadays.

In New France during the 17th and 18th centuries, illnesses were a part of daily life—even more so than today. Hospitals and doctors existed; often medical practitioners worked in conjunction with religious congregations to administer care for sick individuals. However, as you can imagine health care was much, much different back then. So what exactly happened if you were living in New France and got sick?

I’m kidding!

Sort of.

The situation wasn’t really that grave. However due to the high prevalence of infectious diseases as a result of a lack of knowledge and proper hygiene, people who got sick died more often. Diseases like smallpox, typhus, cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis, syphilis, influenza, scurvy, scabies, intestinal parasites, measles, and various fevers (scarlet, yellow, and typhoid), afflicted the people of New France at one time or another. Respiratory illnesses were especially common in the winter. In addition, the strain of daily life took its toll on people and it was common to suffer from some sort of physical ailment like muscle pain, rheumatism, and hernias. Unsurprisingly, the life expectancy of the average New France citizen was only 40 years of age.

Lack of Personal Hygiene

Historians claim that the 17th and 18th centuries were pretty terrible in terms of personal hygiene. Why was this? The religious renewal that occurred under the Ancien Régime in France meant that nudity was looked down upon. Reportedly, even when someone did bathe themselves it would have been rare for them to get completely undressed. People tried to avoid washing because of popular medical theories of that time. Germs, called miasma, travelled through the air and got into the body via our skin. Hot water was seen as harmful because it opens our pores more. Cleaning oneself with a wet cloth was preferred. Lye soap existed, but it was expensive and considered as a luxury item.

“Bathing is for squares,” – The Catholic Church probably.

Fears around water extended to childbirth. When babies were minimally cleaned after being born because people believed the residues would protect the newborn from diseases. Sadly, this likely added to the high infant mortality rate. People tried to not wash their hair often as they believed the oils kept their scalps healthy. Lice was rampant, which is why the first major epidemic that struck New France, typhus, is not really much of a surprise. Known as fièvre pourpre (purple fever), it was a recurring epidemic that was spread by lice and mites.

Note-So-Fun Fact: Thanks to bad hygiene, there were also major sanitation issues with food and water. It also did not help that streets and rivers served as open sewers, which helped bacteria fester and contaminated the water supply.

Venereal and dental diseases were common too. Contraceptives existed, but they were made from linen and/or animal tissue, and were expensive. So not only were they ineffective, but it would be difficult for settlers to obtain them. Rubber condoms were not produced until the 1850s. Dentists existed, but they specialized in tooth decay, extraction, and fillings. Brushing one’s teeth wasn’t really a thing. People rubbed their teeth with linen and used toothpicks. Toothbrushes were at least a century away. Finally, there is also the simple fact that New France settlers did not have running tap water and sinks available to them. So even if they wanted to wash their hands after getting them dirty, they could not, unless they felt like hauling up water from a well.

Source of Diseases in New France

James Lind feeding citrus fruit to a scurvy-stricken sailor aboard HMS Salisbury in 1747 by Robert A. Thom (1961). As you can see by the date, the cure for scurvy was unknown for most of New France’s existence.

Before the lack of personal hygiene comes into play, can you guess what the original (and ongoing) source of disease was in New France? Europe, or to be more specific: ships from Europe. Being stuck on a ship for months with poor nutrition and living in super close proximity to other shipmates was a surefire way to get sick. Ill sailors who survived the voyage would endanger the residents of the port city. Diseases were tied to arrival of new settlers. Epidemics weren’t always devastating, but when they were the demographics of New France suffered greatly given the overall small population of the colony. For example, the smallpox epidemic of 1702 killed between 1,000 to 1,200 people, which was 8% of the population!

New France vs. France

Scène de la peste de 1720 à la Tourette (Marseille) by Michel Serre. This painting depicts how corpses piled up in front of the town hall. They had died as a result of The Great Plague of Marseille in 1720—one of the last major outbreaks of bubonic plague in Europe. This epidemic killed 100,000 people in the French city.

If this sounds like New France was a terrible place to live and living there meant one was doomed to die young, here’s a fun fact for you: In comparison to France, your chance of survival was actually higher in New France. People who lived in New France outlived their European counterparts. In France between 1740 and 1790, the life expectancy for men was 24-28 and for women 26-30. Why? Larger numbers of people + higher population density = increased likelihood of contracting a disease. A healthier lifestyle was actually one of the draws to relocating from France to New France. “There is no climate in the world that is healthier; there is no diseases specific to the country; those that I have seen there were brought by French ships.” – Visitor to New France, (Greer, 23). Despite the uptick in respiratory illnesses during the colder months, people believed that the cleaner, cooler air of New France made it a healthier place to live. Especially in comparison to the cities of France or the French Caribbean; the latter had to deal with not only illnesses brought in via ship but tropical diseases like malaria too.

How to Improve Your Odds of Surviving in New France

Rock Oil Farm c. 1820 by Kevin Rice (c. 2010s). Not New France, (this is a Virginia farm to be exact), but these farmers had the right idea. Stay the hell away from everyone.

1. Don’t be a baby. Newborns did not fare so well. 1/5 died before reaching their first birthday in 17th century New France; 1/4 by the 18th. New France had a mid-range infant mortality rate. Once you got past your first birthday though, your chances of living drastically improved.

2. Live in the countryside. Self-explanatory really. If possible, try to live on a farm away from everyone else. Epidemics increased during the 18th century because more and more settlers were living in cities. The less sick people you and your family came into contact with, the better!

3. Come from a family of survivors. If your one of your parents contracted an illness, but survived, you would be born with antibodies that would protect you from said illness. For example, smallpox was so prevalent in Europe for so long that eventually the mortality rate decreased to 30-35%. So if a New France settler got smallpox, they didn’t need to start planning their funeral ASAP.

4. Don’t be an Indigenous Person. Forget warfare, disease is what disseminated the Indigenous populations in North America. They were the ones who really suffered, not European settlers. Why? Take a look at the previous point. European settlers had immunities built up overtime by their ancestors. Indigenous Peoples never dealt with the vast number of infectious diseases that had existed in Europe for centuries. Scholars estimate that as much as 90% of the Indigenous population died. Ninety. Percent.

As you can see, one’s likelihood of survival in the days of New France was highly dependent upon chance. When one got sick though, it wasn’t an automatic death sentence. (Unless you got bubonic plague; then you were screwed). Sick New France citizens and Indigenous Peoples had a number of health care options and facilities at their disposal. Some of these options are similar to today or were earlier front-runners. Others….not so much. We will be taking a look at professionals, treatments, and tools in next week’s post. Thank you for reading part one of my two-part look at health care in New France. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to sound off below!


Sources

Greer, Allan, The People of New France, University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Lachance, André. Vivre, aimer et mourir en Nouvelle-France. La vie quotidienne aux 17e et 18th centurys, Montréal, Éditions Libre Expression, 2000, 222 p. / “Chronicles: Living Daily Life in New France,” Maison Saint-Gabriel, Accessed from: http://www.maisonsaint-gabriel.qc.ca/en/musee/chr-32.php

Riley, James C., Rising Life Expectancy: A Global History, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Tésio, Stéphanie, “Daily Life: Health and Medicine,” Virtual Museum of New France. Canadian Museum of History. Accessed from: http://www.historymuseum.ca/virtual-museum-of-new-france/daily-life/health-and-medicine/

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6 thoughts on “Disease and Hygiene in New France

    • cadeauca says:

      I always say that if I ever got a chance to travel back in time, I would visit, not stay. Life before indoor plumbing, electricity, and modern civilization? Nope. Nope. Nope.

      Mind you, 90% is the high-end of the estimation by scholars. This number does covers centuries though and that percentage pops up in various sources. Here is my original source and then two more:

      https://opentextbc.ca/preconfederation/chapter/the-widowed-land/

      Cook, Noble David. Born To Die; Cambridge University Press; 1998; pp. 1-14.

      Sad Fact: It’s similar to the estimated death toll for Spanish colonization in Central/South America. It’s high, but quite likely unfortunately.

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  1. French scolar says:

    I’m have a project where I have to write a letter about this guy his life and after he and his friend decides to part ways the events that he could of faced and how he started of in the Algonquin nations and finished in the Iroquois nation (I don’t know if that’s in French sorry I speak french). I was thinking maybe there was a disease that ravaged the nation so that he had to move but can you help me find a source for the disease. Please

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    • cadeauca says:

      To write a letter about a disease ravaging two Indigenous nations, the easiest thing would be to write about smallpox and the effects it had. Smallpox likely has the most research on it given how widespread and devastating it was. The source was Europeans—they brought the disease over from Europe to North America.

      Good luck with your project!

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  2. Anne Irwin says:

    Very interesting and well researched. I want to point out, though, that current thinking among most birth specialists is that newborns should not be bathed until a few days after birth, so in that belief they were probably right. A lot of other reasons probably led to the high neo-natal mortality, but not bathing the neonate was probably not the cause. I love your blog!

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