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DOUGLAS, GEORGE MELLIS, doctor; b. at Carlisle, Scotland, where he was baptized on 11 July 1809, son of George Douglas, a Methodist minister, and Mary Mellis; d. 2 June 1864 on the Île aux Ruaux, Lower Canada.

In 1822 George Mellis Douglas went to Utica, N.Y., at the urging of his brother James*, who was practising medicine there. He attended to the latter’s affairs while learning medicine. James had to flee from Utica, however, because he feared prosecution for dissecting cadavers, an illegal act at the time, and he settled at Quebec on 13 March 1826; George Mellis joined him there a few days later. Since there were no medical boards in Quebec or Montreal, young Douglas was examined by a committee appointed by the governor and received authorization to practise medicine on 13 Nov. 1827. He apparently carried on his profession with his brother until 1831.

At that period cholera was claiming many victims. It had come from India, spread through England and especially Ireland, and was brought to Quebec every year by the many immigrants. In 1832, as a precautionary measure, Lord Aylmer [Whitworth-Aylmer*], then governor general, set up a provincial board of health and two quarantine stations controlled by the army, one 33 miles down river from Quebec at Grosse Île, and the other at Gaspé, where ships from Europe had to stop for inspection. George Mellis Douglas, who had been a justice of the peace for the Gaspé district since 1831, was appointed medical superintendent of the Gaspé quarantine station on 20 June 1832. While holding this post, he assisted Dr Charles Poole, the medical superintendent of Grosse Île. On 9 May 1836 he succeeded him, at the salary of 25s. a day. This was a heavy year for Douglas since in the Quebec region cholera accounted for 3,452 victims during the summer.

On 31 July 1839 Douglas married Charlotte Saxton Campbell, daughter of Archibald Campbell, a royal notary at Quebec; seven children were born to them. In 1841 he bought a piece of marshy land at the east end of Grosse Île and had it drained and brought under cultivation. As the people of the island found it hard to obtain food, Douglas sold the produce of his farm, particularly milk; nevertheless, he was reproached for this trading. In 1847, to meet the typhus epidemic then raging, he improved conditions at the island hospital by adding some 50 beds to the existing 200. However, the epidemic exceeded all forecasts; by 20 May, 30 vessels from Ireland had carried 12,519 immigrants, of whom more than 1,200 had perished at sea or died on their arrival. The hospital took in up to 2,500 patients at a time, but was no longer adequate. Some of the volunteers who had come to Douglas’ aid, including four of the 26 doctors, died; the others were stricken with the fever. Douglas himself did not escape. Yet thanks to the treatment used by him and his colleagues the murderous epidemic was stemmed towards the end of October, although more than 5,000 bodies lay in the cemetery of Grosse Île. In Canada there were 17,300 victims.

In July 1849 a new cholera epidemic struck the town of Quebec, causing more than 1,200 deaths. On Grosse Île, however, Douglas had only some 50 patients to treat. In 1853, a year after the last serious epidemic in the province, Dr Anthony von Iffland* was appointed assistant medical superintendent on Grosse Île. Four years later the quarantine station was placed under the Bureau of Agriculture and Statistics. Douglas found staying on the island less attractive, apparently because of conflicts of interest with Iffland and financial problems. Moreover, he was spending more of his time in England, where in 1858 he married Suzan Cleghorn of Nevis, Scotland, by whom he had a son; his first wife had died six years earlier.

In March 1861 the station on Grosse Île was closed, and on 19 April Douglas was appointed “deputy medical inspector” of ships anchoring in the roadstead of the Rivière Saint-Charles and alongside Cap Diamant. When Gross Île was re-established as a quarantine station on 22 April 1863, Douglas resumed his post of medical superintendent. Sick and depressed (his second wife had died on 21 Nov. 1860), he learned in March 1864 that steps were being taken to appoint Iffland in his place. On 1 June he went to the Île aux Ruaux (northeast of Île d’Orléans), which he had acquired in 1848 and where he had built a sumptuous house that was still heavily mortgaged. That evening he stabbed himself, and died the next day. The coroner returned a verdict of suicide while temporarily deranged.

George Mellis Douglas was a highly respected doctor, who published a number of articles in medical journals about his professional activities on Grosse Île and the illnesses he had cared for there. For example, in 1847 he expounded his theory of the non-contagiousness of cholera, which contradicted that of Dr William Marsden. The discovery of the cholera vibrio in 1885, however, was to prove Marsden right. Douglas was a faithful member of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec and was its secretary in 1842–43. Throughout his career, he distinguished himself by his devotion to duty as well as by his honesty and uprightness.

Sylvio Leblond

George Mellis Douglas is the author of “On the natural history of the ‘Ursus IV Americanus’ or American black bear,” Literary and Hist. Soc. of Quebec, Trans., IV (1843), 56–64; he also published several articles in the British American Journal of Medical and Physical Science (Montreal) in 1847–48. Bureau d’enregistrement de l’île d’Orléans (Saint-Laurent, Qué.), Registre B, 3, no. 149; 5, no.410. Bureau d’enregistrement de Québec (Québec), Registre B, 25, no.9773. PAC, RG 1, E1, 85, pp.66–75, 126; 87, pp.432–33, 437–39; 90, pp.327–28; E8, 24, ff.1–5; 74, ff.1–5; 80, ff.9–10; RG 4, A1, S–284, 18 juin 1832; B28, 39; 51, 11 août 1826, 12 nov. 1827. Private archives, Mrs F. N. Douglas (Lakefield, Ont.), correspondence.

      Le Canadien, 2 déc. 1836, 9 juill. 1845, 10 janv. 1849, 24 mai 1852, 3 juin, 1er août 1864, 2 mai 1870. [James Douglas], Journals and reminiscences of James Douglas, M.D., ed. James Douglas Jr (New York, 1910), 121, 128, 131. Morning Chronicle (Quebec), 3 June 1864. Quebec Daily Mercury, 3, 4 June 1864. Heagerty, Four centuries of medical history in Can., 1, 106–30, 179–211; 11, 25–39. J. A. Jordan, The Grosse-Isle tragedy and the monument to the Irish fever victims (Quebec, 1909). M. D. Noble, A long life (Newcastle upon Tyne, Eng., 1925), 50–51. [Robert Whyte], The ocean plague: or, a voyage to Quebec in an Irish emigrant vessel, embracing a quarantine at Grosse Isle in 1847 . . . (Boston, 1848). Sylvio Leblond, “Le docteur George Douglas (1804–1864),” Cahiers des Dix, 34 (1969), 145–64; “James Douglas, M.D. (1800–1886),” Canadian Medical Assoc., Journal (Toronto), 66, (1952), 283–87; “La médecine dans la province de Québec avant 1847,” Cahiers des Dix, 35 (1970), 69–95; “William Marsden (1807–1885); essai biographique,” Laval médical (Québec), 41 (1970), 639–59. C. A. Mitchell, “Events leading up to and the establishment of the Grosse Île quarantine station,” Medical Services Journal, Canada (Ottawa), XXIII (1967), 1436–44.

General Bibliography

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Sylvio Leblond, “DOUGLAS, GEORGE MELLIS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 30, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/douglas_george_mellis_9E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/douglas_george_mellis_9E.html
Author of Article: Sylvio Leblond
Title of Article: DOUGLAS, GEORGE MELLIS
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1976
Year of revision: 1976
Access Date: August 30, 2014