New Brunswick

New Brunswick's 20th-century pioneer in physical distancing

It may seem strict physical distancing measures to deal with COVID-19 outbreak are entirely new in New Brunswick. They aren't. Similar rules were imposed in the fall of 1918 by the provincial health minister, Dr. William F. Roberts, and his medical officer of health to rein in the spread of the Spanish influenza.

Dr. William F. Roberts led provincial battle against flu pandemic more than 100 years ago

Newly elected Dr. William F Roberts in 1918, age 49. He was about to embark on four months of 'hand-to-hand combat with death.' (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick P107-1)

It may seem strict physical distancing measures to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak are entirely new for New Brunswick.

They aren't.

Similar rules banning gatherings, and closing schools and churches, were imposed in the fall of 1918 by the provincial health minister, Dr. William F. Roberts, and his medical officer of health, Dr. George Melvin, to try to rein in the spread of a deadly flu pandemic.

Roberts's remarkable career, his pioneering work in public health, and even lesser known areas of his work have been keenly followed by Prof. Jane Jenkins, a historian of science and medicine at St. Thomas University.

Province was a leader

"People don't know that in the early 20th century, New Brunswick was on the cutting edge of public health reform, not only in Canada, but in North America," said Jenkins.

Roberts had just been appointed the Commonwealth's first health minister after a narrow election win in Saint John as part of a Liberal government that had a slim, two-seat majority when what was known as the Spanish influenza arrived in the province.
He'd received his education in the early 1880s at New York City's Bellevue Hospital Medical College.

He had been the Saint John coroner, a popular family physician and an advocate for public health reforms.

Roberts and Melvin had used their influence as private citizens to persuade Saint John council to expand the city's water and sewer systems and create building codes mandating indoor plumbing.

They'd also managed to bring about new rules for the safe processing of meat in slaughterhouses and the packaging and sale of food in shops.

Prof. Jane Jenkins of St. Thomas University is a historian of science and medicine. She says Dr. William F Roberts was regarded as a 'hero of the people' for his pioneering work in public health. (Jordan Gill, CBC)

Jenkins says Roberts agreed to stand for the Liberals in the 1917 election on condition the party support a public health act, along with the creation of a department of health to allow expansion of the Saint John health reforms across the province.

A battle soon followed in the legislature to get the bill passed. The Conservative opposition argued it would give too much power to one man. 

In a journal article, Jenkins cites editorials in the Saint John Standard that said a health department would give Roberts more power than the tsar of Russia and that it was to be created simply to satisfy his "vanity and personal ambition."

The Public Health Act passed nonetheless and was just days old in October 1918 when Roberts and Melvin used its sweeping powers to impose physical distancing throughout New Brunswick.

Like 'hand-to-hand combat'

"They were immediately put in place and they were quite extensive," said Jenkins.

"I believe that if those closure orders hadn't been put in place when they were put in place, that the mortality rate from the flu would have been a lot higher."

Roberts himself, she notes, later likened that four-month period to "hand-to-hand combat with death."

Kathy Wilson of the New Brunswick Historical Society says people diagnosed with the flu were placed under quarantine.

In Saint John, boy scouts collected orders and placed the groceries on the walkways outside homes where the disease was known to be present.

Wilson says the order to close churches was deemed particularly harsh by many.

In the end, despite a 10 per cent infection rate and 1,500 deaths, New Brunswick had the second lowest mortality rate in Canada.

A 1918 photo of nurses working with sufferers of the influenza in Lawrence, Mass. (Getty Images)

Roberts was voted out of office in 1925 during a subsequent backlash over pasteurizing milk. But the anger was short-lived and he became known as a hero.

He died from prostate cancer in 1938 at age 69. He was in office at the time, serving as health minister during a second stint in provincial politics.

The following year, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada erected a monument and plaque in his honour on the grounds of the legislature in Fredericton.

Later, in the mid 1960s, west Saint John's Lancaster Hospital School for children with intellectual disabilities was renamed the Dr. William F. Roberts Hospital School.

The school was closed in 1985 as part of a larger movement toward community-based services. Allegations of abuse and neglect arose later.

Jenkins says Roberts's contributions deserve recognition today.

Over the decades the memory of him as a "hero of the people" was lost. People she talked to while researching areas of public health often connect him only with the hospital school."If his name was remembered, it was associated with some unpleasant nastiness," she said.

About the Author

Connell Smith is a reporter with CBC in Saint John. He can be reached at 632-7726


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