Doctor Frederick Ross, a family physician from Winnipeg, recently published his first novel titled A Deadly Thaw: The York Factory Connection. An avid student of history with a fascination with infectious diseases, Dr. Ross set out to capture what he’d read in medical history books about the devastating effects of smallpox.
“The research for this historical fiction was exhaustive. Dozens of books, periodicals and interviews with infectious disease specialists, biologists and historians were necessary to complete this book,” he says.
For Dr. Ross, there is an air of mystery around this deadly disease.
The ongoing effects of climate change also impacted Dr. Ross’s writing. “Bodies buried long ago in the permafrost have the potential to resurface, as we have seen with anthrax in Siberia.” It’s certainly a terrifying notion. He also nursed a nagging question that inspired this novel: could smallpox return as an agent of bioterrorism? “The possibility of making a smallpox-like virus in the lab now exists with the smallpox DNA genome becoming available on the internet for a price. After 9/11, the US government began vaccinating all the soldiers being sent to Afghanistan with fear of bioterrorism raising its fearful head.”
Aside from chilling realities and apocalyptic possibilities, Dr. Ross is also inspired to write by reading authors whom he admires. He finds writing can be both energizing and frustrating at times. “I found days where I couldn’t write enough, totally in the flow. At other times, I would get bogged down with writer’s block. For me, it helps to get away from the project by writing about something entirely different or going for a hike in the countryside or going fishing.”
He also found sharing ideas with friends and family to be very helpful. “My main mentor in writing this novel is a friend who is an English teacher. I consider him astute and very helpful although he can be ruthless at times in his critiques, which, of course you need as a writer. As a mentor, he provided objectivity.”
Dr. Ross found the process of writing a novel to be a great learning opportunity, and his writing style has changed because of it.
In terms of his medical career, he finds meeting with patients to be the most rewarding aspect. “I can get behind with office discussions that take place that have nothing to do with medicine. I often ask older males the simple question “What did you do during the war?” Be prepared for some fascinating stories.” Some of these patients even provided some inspiration for his novel, with stories from when they had been to York Factory.
As a semi-retired family physician, Dr. Ross doesn’t struggle to find the time to write. “Balancing writing with my medical career isn’t all that difficult. What was difficult was to put my other passion as an artist aside to write. I haven’t painted much in the past two years thanks to the book,” he says.
Whether a hectic day involves sitting down for hours to write, working as a family physician, or a little bit of both, Dr. Ross makes the time for small pleasures. “I cool down with a walk with my wife or spend time playing with our dog who gives me great joy. Somewhere in the mix is a glass of wine. Life is good.”
When a team of researchers from Canada’s Arctic Institute travel to York Factory to disinter a grave, they unwittingly stumble upon more than they bargained for buried in the permafrost. Their research is focused on the old Hudson Bay Company fort cemetery, where they are attempting to find a definitive cause of the famed “York Factory Complaint” of 1833 – 1836. But alongside the now-opened grave of Joseph Charles, a “company man” who had succumbed to the “complaint” in 1836, they find a Hudson’s Bay point blanket, an artifact of particular significance to the archeologist of the team, Rachel Thompson, and an indication that Chipewyan people were likely buried there as well. Upon their return from York Factory, Thompson, another member of her team, and the bush pilot who ferried them to their research site, fall gravely ill. When infectious disease interns have the good fortune to be on hand in the remote north as part of a study, they examine the ailing pilot and are horrified to confirm that he suffers from smallpox, a disease thought eradicated worldwide in 1977. A simultaneous smallpox outbreak occurs in Russia, and suddenly the world must ask the question: how could a disease surviving only within the vault-like security of the world’s two level four containment labs have been unleashed to ravage millions? Could the melting permafrost be releasing this deadly contagion?