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Main Page > City in Shock > Medical Aid

Medical Aid

Experts today know that the treatment in the first few hours often decides whether a severely injured person will survive.

On December 6, hospitals were overflowing in no time. Many people with relatively minor injuries were sent away to temporary wards and aid stations. These were ad hoc at first, and became more organized as the hours and days passed.

Military medical units from all forces complemented civilian resources.

By afternoon, doctors and nurses from Amherst, Truro, Kentville and New Glasgow came to Halifax. The trains they arrived on left loaded with casualties and refugees heading away from the horror.

American medical teams began arriving 48 hours after the Explosion, with relief for exhausted doctors, nurses and helpers.

Emergency medicine had yet to develop as a medical specialty, but battlefield practices were helpful in the Halifax crisis. Doctors used triage… the wartime practice of giving priority to patients, not just by how badly they were hurt, but by how likely they were to live.

Eye injuries were common, because so many people had been standing at windows, watching the fire on Mont-Blanc when the shock of the blast sent windowpanes flying in at them.

Stretchers piled up in the hallways and supplies of anaesthetic ran low. Doctors faced countless lacerations, life-and-death surgeries, amputations and eye removals.

Dalhousie University's medical school rounded up all its students…even those who had arrived in September…and sent them out to help.

The Red Cross, Salvation Army and Saint John Ambulance shifted their war focus closer to home.


Halifax had four public, four military and seven private hospitals in 1917. They ranged in size from a few dozen to 200 beds, and they were soon overflowing.

The main civilian hospital in Halifax was the Victoria General. Doctors worked around the clock in its three operating rooms while stretchers crowded the sidewalks outside the building.

Behind the Citadel, Camp Hill Hospital had just been built for convalescent soldiers. It treated 1400 people in the first 24 hours.

Soldiers on the mend gave up their beds for injured civilians and stretchers crammed the corridors.

In his history of the Explosion, Archibald MacMechan called Camp Hill "a synonym for horror…broken bones, scalds, burns due to the contact with stoves or boilers, contusions, maiming, internal injuries--but undoubtedly the most ghastly wounds were those inflicted by the flying glass."

Dr. W.B. Moore of Kentville told MacMechan, “Men, women and children of all sorts and classes were literally packed in the ward like sardines in a box, the cots all occupied, and the floors covered so that it was difficult to step between them.”

Some battered survivors regained consciousness to find themselves left for dead in back rooms.

Doctors, nurses and orderlies worked without rest until outside relief arrived.

Dalhousie University and its medical school

Students at Dalhousie Medical School were rushed in to help in all areas. Some of them had started classes just three months earlier.

The school focused on training community physicians, who could practice in all areas of medicine. Medical specialists were still rare in 1917.

The students got some nerve-wracking on-the-job training.

Dalhousie medical student Florence J. Murray found herself administering anaesthetic for the first time. The next day she became the official anaesthetist at the YMCA emergency military hospital.

In Ground Zero, researcher Neena Abraham quotes Hector J. Pothier, who was a fourth-year medical student in 1917. He worked around the clock at the Victoria General Hospital.

He wrote, “When you face a problem yourself and you solve it yourself, it always stayed more embedded in your mind…The practical experience acquired due to the Explosion, although so dearly paid for by the people of Halifax, was a tremendous value for studies during the remainder of the semester.”

Aid stations & temporary hospitals

Dozens of aid stations sprang up around Halifax in the first hours after the Explosion. Local doctors performed surgeries on their own kitchen tables.

In his history of the Explosion, Archibald MacMechan tells how officers at the military hospital at Cogswell and Brunswick Streets worked at emergency first aid stations on the Halifax Commons:

"When bandages gave out, the surgeons tore up their own clothing and worked naked to the waist…That morning many injured persons would bleed to death on their way to hospitals and dressing stations.

“There was need of haste.”

As the days passed, temporary hospitals were set up at various locations like the YMCA, the Halifax Ladies’ College and the Academy of Music.

American Medical Teams

American military doctors, nurses and orderlies already in Halifax were part of the initial medical response to the disaster. Two vessels that had just left Halifax came back to offer help after they felt the explosion and saw the cloud.

Two days after the Explosion, the first of many relief trains from the US arrived in Halifax. The American Red Cross and other organizations sent crews.

The best-remembered American support came from government and other groups in Massachusetts.

On that first train, the Massachusetts government sent nurses, 13 doctors and surgeons and medical supplies. Much more would follow, from Harvard medical experts to social workers to household supplies for new homes.

Total relief contributions from the State of Massachusetts alone eventually reached over
$750,000 US.

Eye Injuries

Thousands of people had been watching the fire on Mont-Blanc. Many of them were standing by windows, which flew in at them, propelled by the force of the blast.

Six hundred people suffered eye injuries in the Explosion, but contrary to some stories, only 38 people were totally and permanently blinded.

One eye specialist, Dr. G.H. Cox of New Glasgow, arrived within hours of the Explosion and performed operations non-stop for more than twelve hours. By the time he was relieved, the few instruments he had brought with him had become too dull to cut.

Dr. Percy McGrath

Doctors from all over Nova Scotia rushed to help as word of the disaster spread.

Dr. Percy McGrath had graduated from Dalhousie Medical School in the spring. He was working at Camp Aldershot in the Annapolis Valley. His wife was a nurse and the two of them packed up what they could and headed in to Halifax. They were on the first relief train to arrive from Kentville on the day of the Explosion. The track into the city was still blocked and the McGraths had to walk in from Rockingham. Dr. McGrath said he saw "bodies stacked like cordwood" along the road.

He and Mrs. McGrath wound up at Camp Hill where they worked without sleep through December the 8th.

A Lucky Boy

The records include the story of Archie Upham, whose uncle had alerted the fire department to the blaze on Mont-Blanc.

After removing 22 pieces of glass from 7-year old Archie's head, doctors inserted a silver plate to protect his damaged skull. This kind of work (and the length of the operation--it lasted for more than eight hours) was very unusual at the time.

Did you Know

Canadian National Institute for the Blind CNIB was in development at 1917. Its founders fast-tracked the startup of their organization to help with rehabilitation and support for Explosion survivors.

Page Feature: American Aid

USS Old Colony was a US naval ship in Halifax on its way to England. The commanding officer quickly opened it to civilian casualties. Its sailors brought 200 people on board for treatment, as medical personnel pulled together resources to turn Old Colony into a makeshift but well-equipped floating hospital.

Two other US military ships were off Halifax on the morning of December 6. They came in they felt the shock of the Explosion and saw the cloud, to help with relief efforts.

The ranking US officer tendered his men's services to the Canadians. For many days after the Explosion, American sailors took part in security patrols, rescue work and building rough shelters for the homeless.

American civilian reinforcements arrived within days, and stayed for some time.

They established an American relief hospital on Spring Garden Road at the corner of Queen Street.

This photograph is thought to include members of a team from Harvard University medical school.

The Nova Scotia Technical College is in the background. It served as a medical supply depot, and is now part of Dalhousie University.

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