The (sometimes comical) history of ambulance service in Montreal

The history of ambulance service in Montreal is an interesting and, at times, comical one.

The very first horse-drawn ambulance service in Canada actually began at the Montreal General back in 1883, and for many years later the Montreal General and Royal Victoria hospitals were two of the three hospitals providing ambulance service to the city.

Nowadays efforts are made to reach out and work together with other hospitals, but it seems that wasn’t always the case.

Competing horse-drawn ambulances racing down the streets of Montreal to reach those in need became a going concern at the turn of the century.

In the words of Dr. C.F. Moffat in the 1953 issue of RVH News: “It would appear that much of this haste came not from any concern for the injured person, but rather to get to the scene of the accident before the arrival of a competing ambulance.”

Following a collision in 1913 between a horse-drawn ambulance and a streetcar, in which two men were injured and a horse killed, the Montreal Gazette addressed the issue of multiple ambulances responding to the same scene:

“…as soon as an accident on the street happens, people turn in calls for an ambulance, and the five minutes or so that elapse seem to be particularly long when a person’s life is perhaps in the balance. Hence, calls are given frequently to two or three hospitals, with the result that one or two ambulances have to return on a useless journey.”

Tensions sometimes arose when two or more ambulances arrived on the scene at the same time, leading to heated discussions as to the possession of the victim.

“Stories are told of the third ambulance driving up quietly and taking the patient – stretcher, blankets and all – and leaving the scene without being noticed by the others,” Dr. Moffat recounted.

Thankfully practices have changed (and improved) since those early days.

Photo credit: McGill University Archives, PR023641
Horses & ambulance in front of the main entrance to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Dr. Giles Murphy in the front seat. Date: circa 1905

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