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Life in 1900

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Human Rights in Canada: An Historical Perspective

January 1, 1900


If you took all the scientific and medical advances since the beginning of human history to the year 2000 and lined them up, the 20th century would have more than all the other time periods combined.

Knowledge in science and medicine in 1900 is probably closer to that of the year 1700 than the year 2000. In many cases, if you are ill, there isn't much that medicine can do.

The life expectancy of a 60 year old man in 1900 is greater than the life expectancy of a 60 year old man in 1971, and basically the same as a 60 year old man in the year 2000. What tends to be different is the cause of death. Whereas in 1900, a common cause of death is bacterial or viral infection, this will gradually be surpassed by death from "lifestyle" - cancer and heart disease.

Future Fact

On September 6, 1999, Dr. Walter Sneader, a Scottish scientist, will claim in a report to the Royal Society of Chemistry that the discoverer of Aspirin was not Felix Hoffman, but Hoffman's Jewish supervisor Arthur Eichengrun. The report suggests that Eichengrun's discovery was covered up by the Nazis because he was Jewish.

By 1900, thanks to Joseph Lister's germ theory, doctors have learned not to put their scalpels in their mouths when they operate. But the "wonder drugs" that you have come to know and love - like antibiotics, vaccines and insulin - just don't exist. That means that a cut or a scratch can lead to a fatal infection, and juvenile diabetes is a death sentence.

There is one exception. Less than two years ago, German chemist Felix Hoffman learned how to make a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agent called acetylsalicylic acid. (Or did he?) The company he worked for - Bayer -called this new drug Aspirin. The rest is history. Aspirin will go on to become the most successful medical drug in history.

Roentgenologists - radiologists or x-ray specialists - are just being trained, thanks to Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen's discovery of x-rays in 1895.

Surgery is still very experimental, although anaesthetic has been around since the 1840s.

The most famous doctor in the Western world is a Canadian - Sir William Osler.

If you need a doctor, you have to pay for one yourself. Health insurance programs don't exist in 1900, and a serious illness can mean financial disaster for most Canadians.

If you are a Canadian born today, your life expectancy is about 57 years. That's almost equivalent to the life expectancy of a Russian male born on January 1, 1998. However, if you survive childbirth and childhood and survive to the age of 40, your life expectancy isn't much different than in Y2K.

Your odds of dying from cancer or heart disease are relatively low. "Lifestyle" and environmental diseases aren't at the top of the mortality list.

Your chances of dying from infection or of an infectious disease such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, influenza, whooping cough, measles or scarlet fever are relatively high, especially if you are a child. Women are at high risk of dying as a result of complications from childbirth, such as infection and bleeding.

Smallpox still takes its toll, but is declining due to vaccination. The last big epidemic was in Montreal in 1885.

Tuberculosis (also known as consumption) is Canada's leading killer.

Polio, a viral disease that can lead to paralysis, and to which children in particular are vulnerable, is also relatively common. This disease will devastate North America in the decades to come.


No theory of relativity. No quantum physics. No TV. No radio. No traffic jams. No atomic energy. No black holes. No Play Station® or computers. No electric refrigerators or air conditioners. No quantum physics. No satellites. No airplanes. Only a handful of automobiles. No motorized tractors for agriculture. No central heating. No indoor plumbing outside of most urban centres.

Electric lights were invented in 1877, but most Canadian homes still use oil lamps for light.

No modern conveniences

About twenty years earlier, they had begun installing lighting on some Montréal streets. Electric-powered tramcars have been circulating in city streets for eight years.

In 1889, Quebec City boasted it was "the best lit city in the country".

Telephones are gaining in popularity. Bell leases its phones for $5 a year. In Montreal, the Compagnie de téléphone des Marchands is likewise providing service to merchants.

Casavant organs, manufactured in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, are renowned world-wide.

The Hollerith Punch Card, Tabulating Machine and Sorter compiles the results of the 1890 census, in 2 ½ years, rather than the usual 10 year period. The inventor, Herman Hollerith, a Census Bureau statistician, forms the Tabulating Machine Company in 1896. A few mergers and name changes later, the company becomes known as IBM.