Cholera, the “sawdust menace,” and the river doctor: How fear of an epidemic triggered Canada’s first “pollution” controversy
A probe of nineteenth-century newspapers and other sources has revealed that it was an effort to prevent a cholera epidemic in the Province of Canada in 1866 that sparked a landmark controversy over sawdust dumping in the Ottawa River, Canada’s first major battle over industrial pollution. Ottawa’s newly appointed medical officer of health, Dr. Edward Van Cortlandt, was a leading figure that year in shaping both the city’s and the colony’s strategies to combat a feared cholera outbreak when he sounded alarms about the harmful impacts on fish, navigation, and human health of sawdust waste emanating from the famous Chaudière Falls lumber mills just upstream from Parliament Hill. This previously unidentified trigger to the “sawdust question”-the only explicitly “environmental” issue raised during the Confederation debates as well as the start of a 40-year struggle over sawmill “offal” in the Ottawa and across the country-represents an important intersection in the early histories of the Canadian conservation and public health movements. The cholera-sawdust connection is also noteworthy as the first high-profile case in Canada in which the word “pollution” was used in its primary modern sense. Thus, this study also constitutes a Canadian contribution to a significant body of scholarship in the U.K. and U.S. on the mid-nineteenth-century emergence of a pointedly environmental meaning for this societally transformative term.
Boswell, R. (2016). Cholera, the “sawdust menace,” and the river doctor: How fear of an epidemic triggered Canada’s first “pollution” controversy. Histoire Sociale, 49(100), 503–542. doi:10.1353/his.2016.0039