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The CBC Halifax Explosion Site


Main Page > Connections > Science and Medicine

Science and Medicine

Scientific knowledge grew as never before in the years after the Halifax Explosion. One of the most profound changes came in the 1940’s with the beginning of the nuclear age.

During World War II, Allied scientists developed a weapon end the war in the Pacific and change the world. Their research into what had gone before--including the Halifax Explosion--gave them insight into the potential of a nuclear bomb.

Other developments in the physical sciences have led to new understanding of the Explosion's effects. For example, advances in underwater mapping have ended some debates and started others.

In 1917, medicine was a world away from the field we know today. Specialties were few; most physicians were either general practitioners or surgeons. Emergency medicine, ophthalmology, surgery and anaesthesiology, and psychiatry are just some of the areas that draw on the experiences of those turn-of-the-century doctors and nurses.

Nuclear Bomb

Researcher Alan Ruffman notes in Ground Zero: A Reassessment of the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbour:

“…it is clear that the Halifax experience (helped scientists to) gauge the range of air blast effects and to estimate any possible tsunami created by a blast in a populated harbour city.”

Ruffman says the Halifax Explosion helped the scientists in their decision to detonate bombs in mid-air at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to produce a greater range of devastation.

The nuclear bomb exploded over Hiroshima was almost five times more powerful than the blast that levelled much of Halifax and Dartmouth, and radiation caused additional damage.

Underwater Mapping

The last decade of the twentieth century literally changed the face of the sea floor—at least, the face as we can see it from land.

For centuries, ocean charts offered rough estimates and guesses of depth, obstructions and seabed terrain.

Modern ocean mapping combines single- and multi-beam sonar, photography, video, computer imaging, and global positioning systems (GPS).

Researchers can now develop 3-dimensional computer pictures of the ocean floor.

Many of the graphics and animations on this site draw on materials from the Geological Survey of Canada’s . Its remarkably detailed map of Halifax Harbour and its approaches proves, for example, that contrary to legend the Mont-Blanc explosion did not create a huge crater in the harbour bottom.

It also shows what is believed to be the surviving pilings of Pier 6, where Mont-Blanc drifted ashore, and what may be the wreck of another "Explosion ship" nearby.

Divers are still looking for evidence and artifacts from December 6, 1917 on the floor of Halifax Harbour and Northwest Arm.

Emergency Medicine

Modern emergency medicine has its roots in wartime. In the Napoleonic wars and in the terrible carnage of World War I, military doctors and surgeons developed new treatments and procedures for dealing as efficiently as possible with large numbers of badly wounded soldiers, often while still in the field.

But triage and field medicine had not been used in a civilian situation before the Halifax Explosion. Doctors worked in the open air to save lives. Even the hospitals, filled to overflowing, sorted patients by how likely they were to be saved.

World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars accelerated the growth of emergency medicine and pre-hospital care. In civilian life, most hospital admissions through the 1950’s were elective and emergency departments only became common in the 1960’s.


Flying glass caused hundreds of eye injuries in the Explosion. Yet surgeons were able to save many people’s vision.

Ophthalmic surgeons from Harvard University were on the first relief train from Boston, but local doctors had already performed most of the urgent surgeries.

Even in recent years, eye specialists in Halifax see an occasional patient whose vision was damaged in 1917.

Surgery and Anaesthesia

Surgery and anaesthesia were both quite basic compared with what we know today.

In 1865 Joseph Lister realized the role bacteria play in infection, but it took years before the rules of "antiseptic surgery" were rigidly enforced in the world's operating rooms. By 1917, those arguments were largely over. Lister's standards were well entrenched in Nova Scotia, where one of his students, Dr. John Stewart, was president of the provincial Medical Society.

Methods for anaesthesia had only recently moved beyond knockout doses of ether or chloroform. Some of the leading lights in the new study of anaesthesia were at Harvard University and its partner hospitals in Boston. Their knowledge travelled on the Massachusetts relief trains, and would have grown from the American doctors' experience.


Modern psychiatry was born in the 1800’s, when Sigmund Freud and others began to view mental illness as something other than demonic possession or a weakness of character.

World War I was the first “modern” war, with previously unheard-of casualties. For soldiers in the trenches, it was a catalogue of horrors. Many suffered from what doctors then called “shell shock.” Today we would see it as various forms and degrees of post-traumatic stress.

Many people who survived the trauma of the Halifax Explosion later suffered from their memories of it. Problems ranged from startling or crying at sudden noises to sleeplessness, depression and even suicide.

Some doctors recognized the problem…but at the time there wasn’t much they could do. Today there is extensive counseling for, and awareness of, delayed reactions to disaster.

Page Feature: Helen Creighton Remembers

Helen Creighton was a teenager living in Dartmouth in 1917. Today Creighton is famous for her research work on Nova Scotia folk music. Her collection included an estimated 16,000 songs from the province's cultural and ethnic communities, including its unofficial anthem, "The Nova Scotia Song"--better known as "Farewell to Nova Scotia."

The collection also included at least one song about the Explosion.

Did you Know

Dr. John Stewart: In the 1860's, the Scottish doctor Joseph Lister discovered the connection between infection and germs and bacteria in the operating room. The development of "antiseptic surgery" practices saved countless lives. Surgery became more common as it became safer.

One of Lister's early assistants was a Nova Scotian. Dr. John Stewart was head of president of the province's medical society in 1917. He later became dean of Dalhousie University's medical school.

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