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Original title:  Matthias Hoffman - Portrait by John Hoppner.

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HOFFMANN, MATTHIAS FRANCIS, surgeon, naval officer, militia officer, and office holder; b. c. 1780; d. 3 April 1851 in Halifax.

Nothing is known about Matthias Hoffmann’s background except that he was probably born in Trieste (Italy) and that he was related to local nobility. He joined the Royal Navy about 1797 and in 1804 was assigned as a medical assistant to a prisoner-of-war camp in Jamaica. After service on various vessels he was appointed surgeon on the frigate Endymion, which was stationed in the Mediterranean until it was paid off in February 1809. A few months later Hoffmann joined the 64-gun Inflexible as surgeon just before it sailed for Halifax. Once there he was transferred to the sloop Driver, which performed convoy duty and coastal patrols before being paid off in England in 1811.

The posting to the sloop, which followed so quickly upon several promotions, marked a definite eclipse in his naval career. Hoffmann decided after 1811 to abandon any further service at sea. At his own request he was made surgeon to the prisoner-of-war depot on Melville Island near Halifax. His interest in returning to Halifax was due at least in part to his engagement to Charlotte Mansfield, daughter of a Halifax loyalist. They were married by Robert Stanser* on 21 Sept. 1811 and subsequently had six daughters and two sons. The closing down of the Melville Island depot in 1815 marked the end of Hoffmann’s naval service. Later he was to serve as surgeon of the 2nd Halifax Volunteer Artillery Company and in 1843 he was appointed surgeon general of the Nova Scotian militia, an honorific position he held until his death.

After Hoffmann left the navy he established a private practice in Halifax. He had succeeded sufficiently well by July 1816 to be able to move to larger quarters on Granville Street near St Matthew’s (Presbyterian) Church. In 1831 he assumed public prominence when, with doctors Samuel Head* and John Stirling, he operated a lazaret on Melville Island to deal with an outbreak of smallpox in Halifax. It had been established by the local magistrates, the first occasion on which they had recognized any direct responsibility for providing medical services, and was an effort to prevent a repetition of the epidemic of 1827 which had disrupted the Halifax economy and had resulted in some 800 deaths. Their enthusiasm for the temporary hospital was not shared by the poor, and the three doctors treated only sixteen patients. The failure of the lazaret to attract many of the ill in Halifax was compounded for the three doctors when they received from the legislature but a third of the fees requested for their work. Hoffmann did not have the financial resources to donate his services and so he was reluctant to serve as a medical attendant in 1832 when temporary hospitals were once more considered to deal with an anticipated outbreak of cholera.

At the same time two provincial statutes were passed to give effect to an aggressive policy of quarantine and of public sanitation. A central board of health was established in Halifax to coordinate health measures in the province; it also served as the local board of health for Halifax, a function it retained until 1841 when the newly established city council assumed that responsibility. Hoffmann was appointed a health warden for St Paul’s district, one of the ten divisions created in the city. The extensive duties of the wardens ranged from supervising the cleaning of yards to the removal of the ill to the cholera hospitals. The enthusiasm with which the board set about its affairs, and its plan to establish temporary hospitals, including one in the governor’s residence and another at Dalhousie College, created considerable animosity. Much of the initiative behind these preventive measures, fortunately not needed in 1832, came from Sir Peregrine Maitland, the lieutenant governor, who overrode the well-established views of the legislature against concerted action to deal with health crises. Once the fear of an epidemic abated, a public reaction set in. Maitland left Nova Scotia in October 1832 and, when cholera did break out in August 1834, the city was unprepared. Hoffmann and the other doctors in Halifax had to deal with it as best they could. Although some 400 died during the epidemic, many people continued to oppose any radical changes in public policies concerning infectious diseases.

It was not until 1839, with the arrival of immigrant vessels carrying typhus, that a firm sentiment developed in the legislature that provision must be made by the province for immigrants ill with contagious diseases. The government reorganized the central board of health by appointing several doctors, including Hoffmann, to it. On 6 Aug. 1840 he was appointed health officer after the incumbent, William Bruce Almon*, died of typhus.

As health officer Hoffmann was expected to enforce the quarantine regulations whenever they were proclaimed by the lieutenant governor in order to prevent the general spread of contagious diseases into Halifax from vessels arriving in port. The government was, however, reluctant to enforce quarantine on ships other than those arriving from Great Britain with immigrants, lest the colony’s trade be disrupted. In 1832, the only previous occasion on which the regulations had been systematically applied, the merchants had been vehement about the shipping delays and consequent expenses. No government would willingly repeat the experience. Moreover, several doctors, including some on the central board of health, accepted contemporary theories of miasma, and concluded that quarantine was ineffective. Hoffmann, believing in the older theory of contagion, accepted the necessity of quarantine. His official duties and his professional beliefs thus met with opposition from his colleagues, which became a source of continuous frustration during his term as health officer. Yet it was probably because the government believed the post of health officer not to be onerous that it appointed the 60-year-old Hoffmann to it. His appointment was an act of patronage intended to recognize his long career in the Royal Navy and in Halifax, as well as a means of providing some slight financial compensation. Hoffmann rarely collected more than £50 a year in fees from his duties as health officer, and he probably needed the money since he had a large family and only a limited medical practice. Moreover, unlike the two unsuccessful candidates, who were identified as reformers, Hoffmann took no part in politics and regarded public debates as unseemly. He was thus unlikely to create any political controversy unless strongly provoked.

Just at the time Hoffmann joined the central board of health, the Edward, out from Cork (Republic of Ireland), put into Halifax with fever on board. Existing legislation provided not only for quarantine but also that commissioners of the poor were bound to provide medical aid and support in the poor-house for all immigrants who were ill. When the Edward arrived, the commissioners of the poor-house decided not to accept any immigrants. The central board of health insisted that some facility was needed on shore for those who had contagious diseases. Following negotiations with the government a temporary facility was established at Waterloo Farm near the corner of Robie and South streets. Known as Waterloo Hospital, it was separate from the poor-house but under the administration of the commissioners of the poor, and it operated for two months until the immediate danger was past.

In the fall of 1840 Hoffmann helped convince the government that a permanent facility was needed to deal with contagious diseases among immigrants and sailors. Otherwise, Hoffmann argued, he would have no means of preventing such persons from becoming a constant source of infection in the crowded boarding-houses of the city. The commissioners of the poor, who controlled the poor asylum and were responsible for providing for the poor, were most unwilling to admit liability for such persons. However, in January 1841, faced with the care of a large number of recently arrived immigrants, they agreed to reopen Waterloo Hospital and allow Dr Hoffmann to attend the ill. According to the agreement, the hospital remained under the jurisdiction of the commissioners and the inmates were to be legally classified as paupers, but they would be admitted and treated by Hoffmann who would receive £2 per diem for his services. Jealous of their jurisdiction over the asylum, the commissioners terminated their arrangement with Hoffmann in September 1842 and declared that only surgeons officially attached to the poor asylum could provide treatment in their facilities. They continued to admit immigrants into Waterloo Farm but, when faced with a serious outbreak of contagious diseases in Halifax in 1846, they returned to their earlier position that they had no liability for treating immigrants. Thus no facility remained for the treatment of immigrants, and the government refused to take any action because it believed that an adequate hospital would merely serve to attract more immigrant vessels in distress.

The government was forced into action again in May 1847 when Hoffmann was suddenly confronted with 279 passengers, many of them ill with typhus, on board the barque Mountaineer bound for New York from Cork. Authorized to open a lazaret in a small house in Richmond (Halifax), Hoffmann soon moved from this filthy and damp location to Melville Island, the site of the former naval base, but both these makeshift arrangements were totally inadequate and he was unable to cope properly with the emergency. Lieutenant Governor Sir John Harvey, sharing the belief that an adequate hospital would attract more immigrant ships, remained adamant that no provision should be made for the treatment of their passengers and ordered the disposal of all medical equipment purchased in 1847 for the lazaret. None the less, a commitment remained to provide at least minimal care for immigrants. When the survivors of a shipwreck, many of them ill with typhus, were brought into Halifax Harbour in March 1848, Hoffmann was expected to deal with them. Unable to find any facility in Halifax on short notice, the city council, acting in its role as a board of health, opened a lazaret in Dartmouth. This action was met by a storm of opposition from local residents who feared, all too rightly, that typhus would spread throughout the town.

Hoffmann received some harsh criticism for his handling of the immigrants in 1848, but his basic difficulty was the lack of equipment, staff, and facilities. As early as 1832 some doctors had begun advocating the creation of a general hospital, separate from the poor asylum, which could also serve as a teaching institution. In 1839, however, the agitation for a permanent hospital began to focus on the need for dealing with the resident poor, rather than with destitute, sick immigrants. Hoffmann, shortly after his appointment as health officer in 1840, lent his support for a hospital which would deal with infectious diseases. The proposal for a hospital was thus a complex issue, touching as it did on such controversial issues as poor relief and revealing differences in view between public authorities and doctors concerned about medical care. In 1848 when the city council and the legislature did endorse the construction of a hospital, the proposed facility was intended to deal only with immigrants and sailors and not residents of the province. The campaign for a hospital in the 1840s, however, held back partly by a continuing suspicion of the medical profession, had made the doctors realize that to improve their influence and status they would have to cooperate more among themselves. Thus, in October 1844 they formed the Medical Society of Halifax, of which Hoffmann was a vice-president until his death in 1851.

Difficulties with the enforcement of quarantine regulations continued to be a preoccupation for Hoffmann. He was particularly hard pressed to deal with vessels bound for other ports which arrived in Halifax with a serious outbreak of disease on board. The quarantine act of 1839 had allowed him to inspect only those ships carrying ten or more steerage passengers from Europe. On several occasions Hoffmann pointed out that coastal vessels, especially from Newfoundland, also brought disease into the city and he insisted on inspecting some vessels which were outside his jurisdiction. This procedure brought protests from shipowners who objected to the added expense and delay, and the quarantine regulations proclaimed in 1847 by Harvey made no concession to Hoffmann’s arguments.

Hoffmann’s political impotency was particularly evident when he attempted to inspect cabin passengers on board Cunard steamships. Although Hoffmann argued that the respectable classes could be infected by the lower classes, Samuel Cunard* persuaded Harvey to order Hoffmann to confine his inspection to steerage passengers. Social bias and political pressures thus prevented Hoffmann from carrying out any meaningful quarantine policy.

Unlike health officers in other colonies Hoffmann, moreover, had no regular salary, no office, and no boat. His frustrations were brought to a head in November 1847 when his small rented craft capsized in the harbour and he almost drowned. Hoffmann indignantly informed the mayor “that I never go aside a man of war, a foreign vessel or one of our merchantmen that I do not feel that our flag and the authority of our province are disgraced by my boarding such vessels in a fishing boat or a flat boat besides endangering my life.” He also contended that he should receive a salary instead of depending upon fees from ships inspected, which brought him only £40 to £50 a year and encouraged captains to evade inspection. His requests for a boat, office, and salary were brushed aside by the legislature. Indeed the reform ministry led by James Boyle Uniacke, which took office in February 1848, began to question seriously the utility of any quarantine regulations.

As health officer Hoffmann was thus quite unable to make improvements in the enforcement of quarantine regulations, the care of sick immigrants, or his own position. He deserved better treatment by the legislature and the administration, particularly as critics in 1848 were intensifying their condemnation of the central board of health for failing to keep contagious diseases out of the city. Despite his age, the frustration, and the indignities suffered by his vanity, Hoffmann continued in office, probably because he needed money to support his family. His estate was to consist of but £675 in currency and £1,625 in real property. The hazards of his office were fully realized in March 1851 when the immigrant ship Infanta, bound for New York from Liverpool with typhus on board, tied up to a Halifax wharf. The mayor, Andrew MacKinlay*, became enraged by Hoffmann’s refusal to quarantine the ship because he was cautious about exercising his powers as health officer; but before MacKinlay could take action against him, Hoffmann had contracted typhus while treating the passengers. He died on 3 April at the age of 71.

Kenneth George Pryke

Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, no.391. PANS, RG 1, 214C–G; RG 25, sect.3, 1–2, 5; RG 34-3 1/2, P.PRO, ADM 1/1732–33; ADM 24/65; ADM 36/1094, 36/ 15879, 36/16939; ADM 37/ 11, 37/781, 37/1093, 37/2392; ADM 51/1563, 51/1804, 51/1975, 51/2276; ADM 99/77. N.S., Acts, 1832, especially c.14; 1839; 1848; House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1804–51, especially 1832. Acadian Recorder, 29 May, 4 June 1831. Novascotian, 1824–51. Nova-Scotia Royal Gazette, 1812. Geoffrey Bilson, A darkened house: cholera in nineteenth-century Canada (Toronto, 1980). S. L. Morse, “Immigration to Nova Scotia, 1839–1851” (ma thesis, Dalhousie Univ., Halifax, 1946). C. E. Saunders, “Social conditions and legislation in Nova Scotia (1815–1851)” (ma thesis, Dalhousie Univ., 1949). D. A. Sutherland, “Gentlemen vs. shopkeepers: urban reform in early 19th century Halifax” (paper presented to the CHA annual meeting, Montreal, 1972). D. A. Campbell, “Pioneers of medicine in Nova Scotia,” Maritime Medical News (Halifax), 16 (1904): 195–210, 243–55, 519–27; 17 (1905): 8–17. M. H. L. Grant, “Historical background of the Nova Scotia Hospital, Dartmouth, and the Victoria General Hospital, Halifax” and “Historical sketches of hospitals and alms houses in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1749–1859,” Nova Scotia Medical Bull., 16 (1937): 250–58 and 17 (1938): 229–38, 294–304, 491–512. M. H. L. and H. G. Grant, “An epidemic of cholera in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1834,” Nova Scotia Medical Bull. (Halifax), 14 (1935): 587–96. W. F. Hattie, “The first minute book,” Nova Scotia Medical Bull., 8 (1929): 155–63. A. E. Marble, “A history of medicine in Nova Scotia, 1784–1854,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 41 (1982): 73–101. “The Medical Society of Nova Scotia: synopsis of steps leading to its organization,” Nova Scotia Medical Bull., 6 (1927), no.3: 21–22.

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Cite This Article

Kenneth George Pryke, “HOFFMANN, MATTHIAS FRANCIS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 15, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hoffmann_matthias_francis_8E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hoffmann_matthias_francis_8E.html
Author of Article:   Kenneth George Pryke
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   April 15, 2024