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The Largest Mass Blinding in Canadian History through the Eyes of One Nova Scotia Doctor

When Dr. George H. Cox arrived in Halifax on the afternoon of the Halifax Explosion, he met a landscape of destruction: swaths of burning homes, streets littered with wrecked vehicles, piles of dead horses and corpses.The New Glasgow doctor was part of a relief expedition of doctors, nurses and fireman and other volunteers from his community. They had arrived in Rockingham at 5 p.m., several hours after the 9:05 a.m. blast, but because the north end of the city was destroyed, their train could not enter the city.

They disembarked and trudged through deep snow into the city. “We had to make our own way along streets and tracks blocked and covered with debris of sea ports, poles and beams, wires, wreckage of whole trains, autos, trolley cars, dead horses, and here and there dead men or piles of black stiff corpses already gathered by scavengers,” wrote Dr. Cox in his journal that’s now kept at the Nova Scotia Archives.

“The whole was darkened by smoke or lit up by flames from the burning debris. We were met by officials and in a short time sent to points where we could be useful.”

By 6 p.m., Dr. Cox had arrived at Camp Hill Hospital, then a new military hospital with 250 beds. It was packed with 1,500 men, women and children. With all the beds full, people were lying on the floors in the halls, the dining room, the kitchen, and the offices.

Initially, Dr. Cox teamed up with a colleague who was operating on the injured on a kitchen table, repairing wounds and setting broken bones.

But as an oculist and aurist (an eye and ear specialist), he soon found his skillset was in dire need. Many survivors had serious eye injuries, a result of watching the scene in the harbour unfold from behind glass windows when the blast occurred.

Dr. Cox began treating those patients exclusively. “For the rest of the night [I] was busy every minute, either on cases I picked out of the heaps [of people] on the floors or being called on by my medical friends to operate on cases they had found,” he wrote. “…for the whole of that night and for all of the next five days and part of the nights, I did nothing but patch up eyes.”

He’s not sure how many patients he helped. “I have now no record to show the number of cases treated, but I know that some days my table averaged one chloroform case every 15 minutes, while I was often able to sandwich in a cocaine case while my next patient was going under.”

Over five days, Dr. Cox did 75 enucleations (eye removals), including four or five cases where he had to remove both eyeballs, or what was left of them. “In many cases there were no real eyeballs, it was as if the ball had been laid open and then stuffed with pieces of glass or sometimes crockery, brick and splinters.”

His story highlights the dedication of Nova Scotia doctors and other first responders to help survivors in the aftermath of the disaster. Though six American hospital units were immediately dispatched to provide medical care, blizzard conditions and distance meant they did not arrive until days after the explosion.

Haligonians had to count on help that was close to home. Immediately after the explosion, 78 doctors in Halifax and Dartmouth sprang into action, with over 103 physicians and surgeons from across the province arriving later that day. They stayed on for days, caring for hundreds of injured people in heartbreaking circumstances.

With files from Dr. Allan Marble, PhD, and chair of the Medical History Society of Nova Scotia.