Displaying what ailed it

L'Hôtel-Dieu and its Musée des Hospitalières trace Montreal's medical record

In a city like Montreal, where each street name is more obscure than the next, it’s easy to forget that every name has some historical significance. The relationship between each name holds a bit of forgotten history: take De Bullion, rue Le Royer, and Jeanne Mance for example. Angelique Debullion provided Jeanne Mance and Jérôme le Royer with money to “evangelize the natives” and set up a hospital on the island of Montreal. Over the 350 years since its founding, the hospital has become known as l’Hôtel-Dieu and now specializes in cardiology and burn treatments as well as having an emergency room. To archive the interesting history of this museum, the Musée des Hospitalières de L’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal opened in 1992 and now houses artifacts from Montreal’s nascency.

With the museum set up in chronological order, the history of healthcare in Montreal begins in the 17th century with the arrival of Catholic missionaries in Montreal to evangelize and treat the sick and impoverished living in what is now primarily the Old Port. In those times, the hospital was reserved for the poor, as the wealthy would be treated within their own homes away from what they believed to be the dangerous, germ-rich hospital. This segregation of medical care was seen again after the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s and 1850s brought typhus-infected Irish immigrants to Montreal. The museum describes them being quarantined in “sheds” in Griffintown to protect the French Canadian population from contracting the deadly disease. These attempts failed, however, when young boys escaped detainment and began begging on the streets.

From an era when McGill was still an all-male institution, Musée des Hospitalières displays a large picture of a smog covered Lachine Canal in the heyday of Montreal’s industrial revolution, describing the time as an era of increased “illegitimate births, improper funerals, low church attendance, and high mortality rates.” Montreal was known for having the highest mortality rate of any city in North America at that period. Reminders of this period are now hard to find among all the billboards for industrial lofts in the newly gentrified neighbourhood of Griffintown.

In concurrence with the Board of Montreal Museum Directors’ cultural initiative “Montréal Ville de Verre (City of Glass),” a year-long event emphasizing “all facets of glass,” the Musée des Hospitalières is also currently displaying glass artifacts from the 19th and 20th centuries in its temporary exhibits section. The items on display range from glass bedpans to containers for liquid remedies, to syringes and ophthalmological lenses. The pieces on display show both the dramatic changes that have occurred in medicine as well as the technologies (like vials and beakers for laboratory work) which have remained the same.

The range of uses for the glassware also varied. One syringe relied on asbestos rather than a rubber plunger to deliver medicine, while various bottles held liquid medicine ranging from insulin (likely an earlier form of Sir Frederick Banting’s discovery, taken from the pancreas of cows) to Peter Fahrney’s panacea, which promised to “nettoyer le sang.”

L’Hôtel-Dieu has recently warranted the attention of Quebec film director Phillipe Lesage, who will present his documentary Ce coeur qui bat (The Heart that Beats) at this year’s Recontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal (International Montreal Documentary Fesival). The film follows patients around l’Hôtel-Dieu, and sets out to explore “some of society’s most devastating ailments: solitude, psychological distress, social conflict, run-down bodies and minds that have reached their wits’ end.”

Health care in Montreal has certainly come a long way. Although at times treatments may have been less than fair or ideal, they were expressions of a compassionate medical tradition that still exists today.

L’Hôtel-Dieu and the Musée des Hospitalières are at 201 des Pins O., open Wednesday through Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.