In early 1847, the young Quebec city doctor, Lauchlin Grant, struggles to extract a living from his boring practice and pines over his childhood sweetheart, Susannah. She is now the wife of a prominent journalist, Arthur Adam Rowley, who has charged Lauchlin with her care, while he travels in Europe to report on the ghastly potato famine in Ireland and his predictions for its effects on immigration.

Even as Rowley's letters are read at home, waves of starving Irish land at Grosse Ile in the St. Lawrence River where thousands are ill or will sicken of ship fever (typhus), and die. Lauchlin is called to help at the quarantine station. Of the hundreds in his care, he rescues only Nora. Having lost her family, Nora decides to remain as a nurse, because she is now immune.

Lauchlin sees Susannah only once more, learning that she too cares for victims of typhus, which is also ravaging the mainland, despite the quarantine. He senses her unspoken love for him and, filled with an inner peace, returns to Grosse Ile, only to contract typhus and die. Nora takes the doctor's belongings to Susannah's home, hoping to meet the woman whose name he had mumbled in his delirium. Instead, she finds Susannah's newly returned husband dreading the loss of his now dying wife.


This story, based on a true epidemic, provides a vivid account of one of the most tragic epidemics in Canadian history. Approximately nine thousand Irish immigrants died at sea, five thousand lie in mass graves on Grosse Ile, and another seven thousand were buried in the port cities of St. John's, Quebec, Montreal, Toronto, and Kingston. The appalling conditions on-board ship, which favored the louse-borne infection, are graphically delineated in all their horror. But the actions and inaction of public authorities were an equally important vehicle for the spread of the disease within and beyond the sheds.

The fictitious Lauchlin, Susannah, and Nora serve to humanize--without trivializing--the enormity of the epidemic. An intriguing subtext is found in the reactions of the servants of the two Quebec houses, as they strive to maintain that formerly all important middle-class decorum, which their patrons, Susannah and Lauchlin, seem to have abandoned. "Ship Fever" raises questions about public health solutions to any catastrophe at any time and it invites consideration of the tensions between professionalism, commitment, and service.


Ship Fever and Other Stories won the National Book Award. Other recent stories by Andrea Barrett were selected for the Best American Short Stories series (Houghton Mifflin: 1994, 1995).

Primary Source

Ship Fever and Other Stories


W. W. Norton

Place Published

New York



Page Count