Controlling disease: the fight against rubella, measles, polio, and typhoid

In September 2016, the World Health Organization declared the Americas to be the first measles-free region of the world. The disease has not been eradicated worldwide, like small pox, but it’s considered an important step, creating hope for eventual success in other regions. Before mass vaccination began in 1980, 2.6 million people worldwide would die each year, and until the late 1940s, it killed more Canadians annually than polio.(1)

To celebrate this declaration, let’s take a look through our collection at some of the diseases that affected previous generations, the impact they had on Peel residents, and attempts to control their spread. Aboriginal medicine, Rubella (German measles), polio, measles, and typhoid all make appearances in this post.

Traditional teachings, ca. 1860s: “to be a mighty medicine man”

Peel historian Wm. Perkins Bull had an interest in Aboriginal culture, undertaking research on the local First Nations and the First Nations of the Dakotas. His papers, available at PAMA, include a passage from the 1902 book Memories of an Indian Boyhood, by a Santee Dakota physician named Ohíye S’a, writing under the name Charles Eastman:

Some day Ohiyesa will be old enough to know the secrets of medicine; then I will tell him all. But if you should grow up to be a bad man, I must withhold these treasures from you and give them to your brother, for a medicine man must be a good and wise man. I hope Ohiyesa will be a great medicine man when he grows up. To be a great warrior is a noble ambition; but to be a mighty medicine man is a nobler! [sic]

Rubella, 1872: Dr. Heggie on “rothelin”

Just as red pandas aren’t bears, German measles isn’t measles. Now known as Rubella, this separate infection is unique from measles, sharing only the rash.

Wm. Perkins Bull wrote a book titled “From Medicine Man to Medical Man”, for which we unfortunately don’t have any of the background research material yet. In the published book, though, he quotes Peel physician Dr. David Heggie in the Canada Lancet, 1872:

One symptom, however, is nearly constant, viz., giddiness, and it is the only constitutional symptom of the disease. Children with rothelin (sp) will engage in their usual amusements, eat heartily, and sleep well, and, although covered with the lentil rash, will complain of nothing but a feeling of staggering.

Poliomyelitis, 1949; Carl Madgett

The 1949 Brampton Excelsiors senior lacrosse team was in the midst of a strong season, which would see them reach the Ontario Lacrosse Association finals against the Hamilton Tigers. In the August 17 game, local newspaper the Conservator described Carl Madgett as “the big gun in the Excelsior scoring, putting three goals and setting up two more.”(2) Their 8-7 victory helped solidify their lead on first place in the league.

Madgett was a top athlete in town, as a previous winner of the Excelsiors’ Pete Anthony Medal as the team’s MVP, held in “high esteem by team-mates and rivals alike,” representing Brampton provincially during the winter basketball season the previous year, and competing in the town’s hockey league.

But polio could strike fast. Just three days later, no sooner than when the newspaper was being distributed, the 23-year-old was showing symptoms of polio, leading to a paralysis of his legs. He was transferred from Peel Memorial Hospital to an isolation ward in Toronto for treatment. As sports columnist Jack Campbell put it, “striking from the darkness, polio spares no one in its vicious rampage.”

After hospitalization, Carl still maintained active involvement in the community. A coach for the Excelsiors, his involvement away from the box was acknowledged through induction into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame as a builder, and he is the namesake of the 4H Peel leadership award.


Russell K. Cooper fonds

Immunization drives would eventually limit the amount of cases. According to Peel Public Health, Peel has not seen a case of “wild poliovirus” since the 1970s, and Canada was certified polio free in 1994.

Measles virus, 1953: School’s out

One of our earliest posts on this blog, “Why education records matter”, included this page from an attendance register. From a class of 22, nine students were all struck down by the infection, at a Brampton school in 1953. Archivist Samantha Thompson selected this example to show how school records document the changing patterns in illness.

measles school children

This page from a daily attendance register shows the toll measles could take on a class of children prior to the availability of vaccination programs. Student names are blurred to maintain privacy. (Peel Archives, Peel Public Education Records, McHugh School, Daily Register, February 1953.) Click on the image for a closer view.

These records contain personal information protected under provincial and municipal privacy legislation, depending on the age of the record. It’s important to know that no one can access your school records but you or your designated representative. For more information, contact us.

Starting 1 February 1996, all Peel school children began receiving a second dose of the measles vaccine. This photo from the Brampton Guardian fonds was taken at a Regional public health office, 199 County Court Boulevard, Brampton.


Typhoid: Hotel Immigration Detention Centre, ca. 1984

In the 1980s, communication between the federal government and municipalities regarding communicable diseases might not have been as smooth as they could be. One report in the Regional records, prepared after the incident, suggests that the Immigration Detention Centre in Mississauga had a case of typhoid treated in Peel, followed by a relapse. In the meantime, employees and fellow detainees were potentially exposed unknowingly to the bacterial infection:

In the incident involving the detainee with Typhoid, the individual was discharged from hospital and returned to the detention centre with no precautions to prevent the spread of disease to detainees, security/immigration/hotel personnel and the community. He returned to his room with another detainee. His bedding and towels were collected and laundered along with the other laundry items from the detention centre and the hotel which is occupied by travellers and the general public.

The report suggested an isolation room be established, and precautions that should have been taken with food, laundry, and any other soiled material from his room.


This blog post used research from Wm. Perkins Bull fonds that is currently being processed; the book From Medical Man to Medicine Man, part of the Perkins Bull Historical Series; the Russell K. Cooper fonds and various online sources; Peel Board of Education fonds, McHugh School files and Brampton Guardian fonds; Region of Peel fonds, Communicable disease control, 1984.

(1) Stella McKay, Dangerous Nuisance: Measles Often Ignored, Kills More Than Polio, The Globe and Mail, 8 November 1956.
(2) “Excelsiors Win”, Conservator (Brampton), 18 August 1949.

Posted by Nick Moreau, Reprographics Specialist

One response to “Controlling disease: the fight against rubella, measles, polio, and typhoid

  1. I had the pleasure of meeting Carl Madgett several times at the Peel Archives. He led a very full life but the effects of polio stayed with him until his death.

    Liked by 1 person

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