Writer and medical doctor George Burden explores medical mysteries from Canada’s past — and their implications for health care today.
Milk maids were traditionally reputed to have great complexions. Taking note of this, Dr. Edward Jenner, an 18th century English medic discovered that infection with cowpox, conferred immunity to the much more severe variola, or smallpox. Milk maids often acquired cowpox, a much milder ailment, in the course of their employment and hence rarely suffered the disfiguring facial scars which were almost the norm in members of 18th century society.
Jenner began a program of vaccination (incidentally derived from the Latin for cow) with cowpox and thus was the first person to develop a safe and effective inoculation against smallpox. Shortly after he sent a batch of vaccine to his good friend Dr. John Clinch, a medical missionary in Trinity, Newfoundland, who subsequently performed the first smallpox vaccination in North America.
One would think this technique would have quickly spelled the end of smallpox, but such was not to be the case for almost 200 years. Ignorance, distrust and narrow-mindedness proved to be a deterrent to widespread inoculation, though forward thinkers quickly realized the blessing the vaccine would prove to be.
In the 19th century the Highland Regiments of the British were reputed to be hardy tropical troops. This was due in part to the avid inoculation program their medical officers initiated, though the airy kilt also made the Highlanders much more resistant to horrid tropical fungal infections than their woolen trousered compatriots.
Another enlightened medic was Dr. William Todd, physician and chief factor for the Swan River Hudson Bay Company District. In 1837, the very year Victoria was crowned queen of England, he received word from an Assiniboine that a “bad disease” was on the way. Todd suspected this ailment was smallpox and quickly organized a program of inoculation, training Aboriginal “medics” to administer the vaccine, the first such program in North America.
Todd kept detailed records of his program, and though up to 75% of some Plains Aboriginal groups died of smallpox, he noted that none of those inoculated suffered this fate. He had warned many who had refused the vaccine what their fate would be. His accurate predictions gave Todd somewhat of an unwanted reputation as a shaman among the Aboriginal peoples.
It was Todd’s turn to be puzzled and bemused when an unusual story made its way back to him that a small group of Assiniboine who were fleeing the epidemic had become afflicted with the disease. On the brink of death, two of the Assiniboine people made their way into a small valley in Saskatchewan and discovered a strangely colored lake, later christened Little Manitou Lake, the Lake of the Healing Waters. One member of the pair crawled to the lake and took a mouthful of water. Spitting it out as undrinkable, he crawled into the water to cool his fever, and instead of sinking found himself unusually buoyant. He floated in the lake for almost 24 hours, then, feeling much better, he returned and dragged his friend into Little Manitou as well. Both made an uncomplicated recovery.
The lake was shown to have an unusually high salt content, approximating that of the Dead Sea, itself known for its healing properties. Little Manitou was later found to have high concentrations of magnesium, potassium, iron, silica, sulfur and mineral salts. Perhaps these agents, in contact with the smallpox skin lesions, had some sort of detoxifying effect.
In subsequent years, people would cart away the lake’s waters in barrels, touting its ability to heal cuts and sores quickly and effectively. In the 1920s and 1930s, a spa industry would develop on Little Manitou and those seeking healing today can visit the Manitou Springs Resort Spa, in Watrous, Saskatachewan.
“Manitou Lake” RV West.com
“Regimental Highland dress” YourKilt.com
“A Milk Maid with Cows and Sheep” by Julien Dupré
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