Historicist: The Toronto School of Medicine

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Historicist: The Toronto School of Medicine

Rival medical schools struggle to serve Toronto students.

The Toronto School of Medicine, ca. 1885, on Gerrard Street.  Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

The Toronto School of Medicine, ca. 1885, on Gerrard Street. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Dr. John Rolph arrived in York in 1831 with an impressive resumé. Having first earned medical and law degrees in England, he had spent 10 years in what is now southern Ontario, during which time he had pursued both law and medicine professionally, and also entered politics, first serving in the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada, as the representative for Middlesex, in 1824. During this time, Rolph had also recognized the need for medical education in Upper Canada, and joined with Dr. Charles Duncombe to provide instruction at a short-lived medical school in St. Thomas.

Shortly after moving to York, Rolph began offering medical instruction at his home and surgery on Lot Street (now Queen Street), located on the north side, between what are now Bay and Elizabeth Streets. Although Rolph’s new school was unable to confer medical degrees, it provided capable instruction which prepared students to take the medical licence examinations, for which degrees were not necessary.

Politically, Rolph was aligned with the reform movement. Although he was not generally supportive of William Lyon Mackenzie, Rolph provided assistance to the rebels in the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion, which led Sir Francis Bond Head to order his arrest. With the assistance of one of Rolph’s students, the future Dr. Henry Hover Wright, Rolph made his escape out of the city, after which he spent five years in Rochester, New York, living in exile. After an amnesty was declared, Rolph returned to Toronto in 1843.

1843 also saw the establishment of Upper Canada’s first degree-granting medical faculty at King’s College, the forerunner of the University of Toronto. Rolph reopened his own medical school at this time, eventually bringing in additional instructors, and incorporating it as the Toronto School of Medicine in 1851.

Dr. John Rolph.  Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 4310633.

Dr. John Rolph. Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 4310633.

The King’s College Faculty of Medicine was short-lived. It was beset by various political problems, including accusations of financial mismanagement and undue favouritism toward students of various affiliations. In 1853, new government legislation forced several changes on the school, not the least of which was the elimination of the law and medical teaching faculties. The college was to cease all formal medical instruction, confining its responsibilities to examinations and the awarding of degrees. Rolph played no small part in the passing of this legislation; he had re-entered Canadian politics in the 1850s, and in this capacity lent his support to the bill. With no teaching faculty at the university, local medical instruction was now the responsibility of other medical schools, namely the newly formed Trinity College Medical School and, of course, Rolph’s own Toronto School of Medicine. In one biography of Rolph, Marian Patterson notes that “gossip was quick to accuse Rolph of engineering this move in order that his school should have unopposed control of medicine in Upper Canada.”

One of Rolph’s students, Dr. Walter Geikie, recalled in 1901 that although Rolph’s school was run out of his own home on Queen Street, its reputation was considerable, offering as it did “complete instruction in anatomy, physiology, materia medica and therapeutics, including the necessary knowledge of chemistry, medicine, surgery, midwifery and diseases of women and children.” Indeed, a great many of the major medical figures of the subsequent decades received part or all of their medical instruction through the Toronto School of Medicine, which continued to be known colloquially as “Rolph’s School.”

Geikie wrote that enrolment at Rolph’s School was so high that it became necessary to erect an additional building on the Queen Street property. “One part of this room had plain pine seats in it, ranged one above the other, while the table behind which Dr. Rolph and the other lecturers sat when they lectured, was the vat in use for anatomical purposes. The rest of this room was provided with dissecting tables on trestles, and this constituted the dissecting room where a great deal of dissection was done for a number of years. Only a thin wooden partition separated this medical college part of the building from the rest of it, in which were comfortably housed Dr. Rolph’s horse and cow.” A further brick addition in 1850 accommodated a pathological museum, and Geikie recalled that it was then necessary to rent further space on Richmond Street for lectures.

Dr. Walter Geikie.  The Canadian Practitioner, Vol. 14, No. 6.  March 16, 1889.

Dr. Walter Geikie. The Canadian Practitioner, Vol. 14, No. 6. March 16, 1889.

Having multiple proprietary schools proved a difficult political situation for the medical community to manage, and medical education in Toronto continued to be plagued by disputes between rival factions. The University of Toronto maintained strong connections with the medical faculty at Trinity, leading to accusations that the university was applying tougher, unfair standards to the students who had trained at Rolph’s school. Similar problems were reported in connection to the medical staff of Toronto General Hospital, as students from the different schools sought regular access as part of their training.

With the apparent aim of securing better opportunities for their students, the Toronto School of Medicine sought a more formal connection with a degree-granting institution. In its early years, the school had a relationship with the University of McGill College in Montreal, wherein McGill formally recognized classes from Rolph and his instructors. While much of Rolph’s attention was devoted to official parliamentary matters, the majority of the school’s business affairs were handled by another of the instructors, Dr. William Aikins, who was also Rolph’s partner in practice. Aikins was instrumental in forging an agreement between the school and Victoria College in 1854, in which the Toronto School of Medicine instructors became the staff of the college’s first Faculty of Medicine.

Toronto School of Medicine building on Richmond Street, from the 1850s.  Geikie's account suggests this was a lecture space prior to the affiliation with Victoria.  Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Toronto School of Medicine building on Richmond Street, from the 1850s. Geikie’s account suggests this was a lecture space prior to the affiliation with Victoria. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Rolph retained his popularity with students under the new arrangement. In 1855, his students petitioned successfully for the publication of his introductory lecture from the start of the term. In their petition, the students wrote that “We were at the time of its delivery impressed with its polished elegance, its philosophic clearness, and the multitude of important facts which it presented, facts which belong not to the profession exclusively, and which cannot be too extensively known, or too deeply pondered.” The published lecture reveals a very flowery style:

“…Let us to-night enter the Temple of Nature, and take a general view of the wisdom, beneficence, and unity displayed in the creation of all living things.

Among the most curious and striking properties of all living matter, both in the vegetable and animal world, may be noticed its resistance of the putrefactive process…”

In a 1990 article in the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, historian Jacalyn Duffin writes that “it appears that Rolph gave the same lecture will little change every year for at least 15 years.”

On the first day of the 1856 term, the majority of the Victoria faculty rebelled against Rolph and submitted their resignations. In a letter quoted by historian Marian Patterson, Aikins wrote that “as we found the Dean was steadily making efforts to wean the allegiance of the students from us, it has been resolved to try our prospects by opening the Toronto School of Medicine, of which we are legally the Corporation.” A court awarded the former faculty members the right to use the Toronto School of Medicine name, and thus a new medical school of that name opened in Toronto. City directories suggest that the new school conducted classes in the old school’s location on Queen Street before moving to a building near the University of Toronto campus.

The building on Gerrard Street which was first home to the Victoria College Faculty of Medicine, and subsequently the second incarnation of the Toronto School of Medicine.  Credited to B. Gloster, 1900.  Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

The building on Gerrard Street which was first home to the Victoria College Faculty of Medicine, and subsequently the second incarnation of the Toronto School of Medicine. Credited to B. Gloster, 1900. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Patterson notes that “during the two weeks in which he sought to fill the vacancies on his staff, [Rolph] lectured four and five times daily on all subject on the curriculum and to the entire satisfaction of his students.” The Victoria School moved to a new facility in Yorkville, on what is now Asquith Avenue, and later to a site on Gerrard Street, across from where Toronto General Hospital then stood.

Rolph remained Dean of the Victoria Faculty of Medicine, with which he remained synonymous. In 1894, Dr. William Canniff, a graduate of the first Toronto School of Medicine who succeeded Rolph as Dean at Victoria, wrote a 688-page history of medicine in Upper Canada, in which he claimed that the Victoria Faculty “enjoyed many years of prosperity. It was not until the latter part of the ’60s that [Rolph] exhibited any decay of his splendid qualities as a lecturer, and then it was more a loss of the clear, resonant tones of his voice than a mental grasp.”

In 1870, ill health finally forced Rolph to resign, and he died soon after. The Victoria Faculty of Medicine only remained open for a few years more, and closed in 1874, when its students transferred to Aikins’ Toronto School of Medicine; shortly thereafter, this school relocated to the old Victoria site on Gerrard.

The Toronto School of Medicine, kitty-cornered from Toronto General Hospital, at Gerrard and Sackville.  Goad' Atlas of the City of Toronto and Suburbs, Vol. 1, Plate 28.  City of Toronto Archives.

The Toronto School of Medicine, kitty-cornered from Toronto General Hospital, at Gerrard and Sackville. Goad’s Atlas of the City of Toronto and Suburbs, Vol. 1, Plate 28. City of Toronto Archives.

Trinity College, which had closed its medical school in the 1850s, re-established a medical faculty in 1871, providing further medical instruction in the city. A third school, the Ontario Medical College for Women, opened in 1883, offering medical education specifically for women.

By this time, however, it was evident that the era of proprietary medical schools in Toronto was drawing to a close. In his 2002 history of the University of Toronto, Martin L. Friedland observes that these schools “did not have the financial resources for the first-class scientific work that was increasingly required in medicine. Medicine was slowly moving away from medicine as an ‘art’ to medicine as a ‘science,’ and that meant laboratories, equipment, and staff—great expenses for proprietary schools, which depended entirely on student fees.”

The University of Toronto reconstituted its Faculty of Medicine in 1887, resulting in the closure of the Toronto School of Medicine. The new Faculty hired many of the Toronto School of Medicine instructors; Rolph’s former colleague, Dr. William Aikins, was appointed Dean. The Trinity and Women’s College medical faculties remained in operation as separate institutions until the early years of the 20th century.

Dr. Walter Geikie and Dr. William Canniff, both of whom trained under Rolph and taught alongside him, each wrote extensive accounts of the history of medicine in Upper Canada which speak of Rolph in glowing terms. Curiously, both of their works manage to avoid all mention of Aikins’ name, despite Aikins’ extensive involvement with medical education and close associations with Rolph in particular.

Dr. William Aikins.  University of Toronto Monthly, Vol. 2, No. 7.  April 1902.

Dr. William Aikins. University of Toronto Monthly, Vol. 2, No. 7. April 1902.

Aikins’ contributions receive considerably more attention in an account from Dr. Frederick Starr, a surgeon and professor at the University of Toronto. In a 1901 speech given to the Toronto Medical Society, reprinted in The Canadian Practitioner and Review, Starr describes Aikins as a talented instructor and “one of the ablest surgeons on this continent.” Starr notes that the decision to appoint Aikins as Dean of the reconstituted University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine was entirely fitting, as “he entered heart and soul into the negotiations [with the University], believing that such an arrangement meant much toward the progress of medicine in this Province.”

Starr makes particular mention of Aikins’ interest in the many new techniques which emerged during his long medical career, including several innovations pioneered by Aikins himself. He claims that Aikins was “the first man in Canada to adopt Lister‘s views and practice antiseptic surgery,” and that “nothing pleased him more than to hear of one of his [former students] having done some new and difficult operation, as many were then doing, for antiseptic surgery was then in its infancy, and great things were happening daily.”

Aikins’ progressive views may well have alienated him from the Toronto medical establishment just as much as his public split with Rolph had, which was not always keen to embrace new ideas. “In the carrying out of antiseptic surgery, as you may imagine,” Starr wrote, “[Aikins] met with much opposition and even with dishonest and underhand treatment, in so far that one man, who shall be nameless—and may he rest in a name-less grave—would go to his cases, after their removal to the ward, and infect the wounds with pus taken from other cases.”


Additional material from: Rainer Baehre, “The Medical Profession in Upper Canada Reconsidered: Politics, Medical Reform, and Law in a Colonial Society,” in Canadian Bulletin of Medical History (Vol. 12 – 1995); The Canadian Practitioner and Review (Vol. 25, No. 4 – April 1899); William Canniff, The Medical Profession in Upper Canada 1783–1850: An Historical Narrative, with Original Documents Relating to the Profession Including Some Brief Biographies (William Briggs, 1894: Toronto); W.G. Cosbie, The Toronto General Hospital, 1819–1965: A Chronicle (Macmillan, 1975: Toronto); Jacalyn Duffin, “In the View of the Body of Job Broom: A Glimpse of the Medical Knowledge and Practice of John Rolph,” in Canadian Bulletin of Medical History (Vol. 7 – 1990); Martin L. Friedland, The University of Toronto: A History (University of Toronto, 2002); Walter B. Geikie, “An Historical Sketch of Canadian Medical Education,” in The Canada Lancet (Vol. 34, No. 5 – January 1901); The Globe (August 26, October 21, 1870; October 4, 1887; May 28, 1897); Charles M. Godfrey, Medicine for Ontario: A History (Mika, 1979: Belleville); Arthur Gryfe, “Dr. John Rolph: Physician, Lawyer, and Rebe” in Canadian Medical Association Journal (Vol. 113 – November 22, 1975); Marian A. Patterson, “The Life and Times of the Hon. John Rolph, M.D. (1793–1870)” in Medical History (Vol. 5, No. 1 – January 1961); Edward Shorter, Partnership for Excellence: Medicine at the University of Toronto and Academic Hospitals (University of Toronto, 2013); F.N.G. Starr, “President’s Address – ‘The Passing of the Surgeon’ in Toronto,” in The Canadian Practitioner and Review (Vol. 26, No. 12 – December 1901); University of Toronto Monthly (Vol. 2, No. 7 – April 1902).


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