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Quarantined: Life and Death at William Head Station, 1872–1959

Scenes from 1939: An outbreak of a highly infectious disease. Travelers from abroad quarantined - but not for long enough to prevent the spread.

For eighty-five years, the William Head Quarantine Station in Metchosin was Canada’s major port of entry on the west coast for travellers arriving by sea. Before docking at Victoria or Vancouver, all ships and passengers were required to report for medical inspection at William Head and, if needed, undergo quarantine at the facility’s barracks.

In this excerpt from his book Quarantined, Peter Johnson shares a vignette about the physician Theodore Bain, who served as medical director at the station from 1938 to 1939.  

Dr. Theodore Bain came with what appeared to be solid credentials and strong personal traits. He left Aberdeenshire, Scotland, at fourteen to join his father, who had immigrated to Canada years before. Theodore did well in school in Toronto and faced a bright future when the First World War erupted. He enlisted, and was sent to the Western Front where he saw mustard gas, trench warfare, thousands dead, and enough maimed young bodies to beggar the imagination.

Somehow, he survived, returned to Canada, and graduated from the University of Toronto Medical School in 1926. For five years, he worked with the Canadian Immigration Service in Glasgow and Edinburgh. That experience was enough for him to be hired as a health officer at the William Head Quarantine Station in the 1930s. But as self-reliant and accomplished as he appeared to be, Dr. Bain would soon prove to be woefully inept in dealing with infectious disease control.

The Empress of Japan, 1892. (Metchosin School Museum)

Just three months before his appointment in October 1938, Dr. Bain addressed the Vancouver Foreign Trade Bureau. Poised on the brink of another world war and hurting still from the Depression, nervous entrepreneurs wanted to hear that British Columbia was at least safe from epidemics through the protection afforded by William Head. Plain-speaking and severe, Dr. Bain boasted of the station’s recently installed fumigation apparatus, and commented that it alone would rid any contaminated goods from the deadly pathogens of plague, yellow fever, typhus, and cholera.

The William Head hospital and detention building, 1930s. (Metchosin School Museum)

What Dr. Bain failed to mention was that the eradication of contagious disease depended more upon the rigorous application of quarantine regulations than upon new technology.

In January 1939, outbreaks of smallpox diseases occurred throughout the eastern Pacific, and Shanghai suffered a particularly virulent epidemic. Though the disease had been tracked by quarantine colleagues around the Pacific, Dr. Bain seemed to have missed the alert. When two ships from that seaport arrived at the William Head Quarantine Station with smallpox on board less than a week apart, a calamity unfolded far more grave than any of Dr. Bain’s oratorical predictions.

On February 12, four days away from the station, the captain of the Queen Victoria alerted William Head officials that there had been a death on board from scarlet fever. He asked advice from medical officers regarding burial at sea. One particularly astute health officer requested that the body be retained until it could be examined upon arrival. The infection was not scarlet fever, but “hemorrhagic smallpox, and careful examination of the crew revealed one member with a slight elevation of temperature.”

Passengers disembark for quarantine, 1917. (Metchosin School Museum)

Even as the ship was tied at the wharf, five more cases of smallpox were developing below decks. On February 21, the Victoria Daily Times reported that the Queen Victoria had suddenly been allowed to proceed to Port Alberni with all hands just six days after being quarantined at William Head. “It is well known,” the paper reviled, “that the incubation period of this germ is 14 days or more.”

The people of the Alberni Valley were outraged. Why, they queried, was it not established that the crew was entirely free of disease before being cleared? Who pulled strings, if any? We want to know these things!

The answers never came, because three days later a second ship arrived at William Head. Outbound from Shanghai, the Rugeley had sailed for British Columbia in early February to load lumber destined for Australia. On February 14, five days off Victoria, it reported to William Head that one crewmember was seriously ill.

When the old steamer arrived at the station on February 19, the sick sailor already showed the telltale pockmarks, and health officers found scabs under the linoleum in the patient’s cabin and in the corridor outside. The crew’s vaccination certificates were in disarray, and interviews with crewmembers revealed even more confusion. Three had never been vaccinated, nine had been vaccinated in infancy only once, and two vaccinated once in infancy and again later in adolescence. The Rugeley was duly quarantined and the patient admitted to the station’s hospital.

The Empress of India and Princess Louise at William Head wharf, 1901. (Metchosin School Museum)

By February 20, William Woods, the third engineer, was dying; Captain W.H. Hall, Chief Officer F.S. Cummings, Chief Engineer William Sedgewick, and Second Engineer John Litlico were all gravely ill. Within another day, the cook, John Murray, mess-boy Robert Dyas, Steward George Stevenson, and Able Seamen A. Millington and H. Roberts were all stricken. The Rugeley had only been in quarantine for twenty-four hours when Millington, Stevenson, and Sedgewick died. The next day, Dyas, Cummings, and Murray died. Within another two days, four more were dead.

This startling rise in the number of deaths left the remaining nineteen crewmembers racked with dread. This time reporters pushed harder for an explanation.

© Peter Johnson. Heritage House Publishing,

Peter Johnson is an award-winning author, teacher, and maritime historian. His popular books on little-known aspects of coastal history include A Not-Savage Land: The Art and Times of Frederick Whymper, 1838–1901; To the Lighthouse: An Explorer’s Guide the Island Lighthouses of Southwestern BC; and Voyages of Hope: The Saga of the Bride-Ships. He lives in Vancouver.