University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Medical Relief Trains from the United States

Massachusetts, Boston, and Maine Send Doctors, Nurses, and Supplies

Emergency relief hospital in the YMCA, Halifax.
Wikipedia Commons.

Very soon after the explosion, a Boston banker received a message on the private banking telegraph from an American in Halifax:

Organize a relief train and send word to Wolfville and Windsor [towns near Halifax] to round up all doctors, nurses, and Red Cross supplies possible to obtain. Not time to explain details but list of casualties is enormous.

The Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety. The banker immediately contacted the head of the Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety, a new kind of organization created earlier in 1917 to respond to public emergencies. It was the first U.S. public emergency response unit and had members from public and private organizations—and its first test would be in Canada rather than the United States.

By 11:00 a.m., just two hours after the explosion, two prominent men met with the governor of Massachusetts to suggest that the committee send aid immediately to Halifax. The Governor agreed, and the Committee set to work to find medical personnel and supplies, even though no details of the explosion and damage were known.

By 10:00 p.m., the Committee’s train left Boston for Halifax (nearly 700 miles away) carrying a large group of doctors and nurses from Harvard Medical School, tons of medical supplies, and complete operating theaters. The train also carried 13 medical professionals from the Massachusetts State Guard.

As the train moved north, it ran into the blizzard that had struck eastern Canada and the northeast United States. The train was delayed on the tracks while snow was cleared. It arrived 48 hours after the explosion.

The Boston Metropolitan Red Cross. At 8:00 p.m. on the day of the explosion, Dr. William Edwards Ladd received a call from the Boston Metropolitan Chapter of the American Red Cross asking him to take charge of the Red Cross hospital unit to be sent to Halifax. If he would find 30 doctors and 50 nurses who could leave the next morning, the Red Cross would provide all supplies.

The train was delayed leaving because so much equipment had to be loaded, especially the Harvard hospital supplies that had originally been intended for the war-front in France. The supplies from Harvard were sufficient to set up a fully equipped 500–bed hospital complete with staff. The train carried 30 doctors, 70 nurses, and 14 non–medical staff (mostly disaster specialists).

Boston and Halifax have a long, interrelated history of trade and shipping, and the bond was strengthened after the Halifax Explosion.

Other Relief Trains. Many other trains were sent from the United States and across Canada to relieve the suffering in Halifax. One notable example is a train from Maine. The State of Maine unit brought 110 doctors, 4 nurses, and 10 non–medical staff to the relief effort.

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