Now and Then: Toronto General Hospital

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Now and Then: Toronto General Hospital

Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.

The old Toronto General Hospital as seen from Gerrard Street some time before 1913. Photo from the Toronto Archives, fonds 1587, Series 409, Item 59.

The old Toronto General Hospital as seen from Gerrard Street some time before 1913. Photo from the Toronto Archives, fonds 1587, Series 409, Item 59.

As with every new year, the first baby born gets a few articles written about them and their 15 minutes of fame. The first GTA baby of 2017 was born in Mississauga at exactly midnight. The first baby born in Toronto was born in East York at the Michael Garron Hospital four minutes after midnight. In the Toronto of the 1870s, there was one place for mothers to go to give birth: the Burnside Lying-In Hospital.

Before 1869, there had been three maternity hospitals in the city. They all merged into the Burnside hospital, which had been created in 1863. According to the Encyclopedia of Canadian Social Work, the Burnside hospital was where “unwed mothers delivered their babies.”

A baby clinic at St. Christopher House, now West Neighbourhood House, in September 1914. Some of these babies could have been born at Burnside. Photo from the Toronto Archives, fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 334.

A baby clinic at St. Christopher House, now West Neighbourhood House, in September 1914. Some of these babies could have been born at Burnside. Photo from the Toronto Archives, fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 334.

In 1877, the Burnside and the Mercer Eye and Ear Infirmary were amalgamated into the Toronto General Hospital, a facility that traces its roots to the General Hospital of the Town of York, which opened in 1829 at King and John Streets. In 1856, it had moved between Sumach, Gerrard, Sackville, and Spruce. After adding the Burnside and Mercer, the hospital had 400 beds. In an 1897 article in the British Medical Journal, Dr. Adam Wright at the Burnside wrote that the mortality rate had been high before the merger with Toronto General, and the new building, opened in 1878, had helped reduce deaths. Since October 1888, Wright said the hospital had 1,250 deliveries with 5 deaths from septicemia. “I do not consider this satisfactory, but I’m glad to be able to say that our results are improving, practically from year to year,” he writes. He goes on to praise the women in charge of nursing at Burnside, saying they are “as nearly perfect as possible.”

A nurse stands in Toronto General Hospital in 1913. Photo from the Toronto Archives, fonds 1231, Item 207b

A nurse stands in Toronto General Hospital in 1913. Photo from the Toronto Archives, fonds 1231, Item 207b

Wright also wrote up rules for births in 1906. The first instruction for nurses was to take the patient’s clothing for fumigation and to dress her in hospital clothes. According to Giving Birth in Canada, 1900-1950, this instruction was based on classist assumptions about unwed or poor patients being unclean. The rules go on to describe the steps the nurses should take during labour, birth, and after the baby is born. Giving Birth notes that the nurses were instructed to take measurements throughout the birth. The 1900s saw an increasing focus on public health and of scientific measurement in medicine. As Wright says at the end of his rules, “Our chief aim in making rules as to certain time records is to secure uniformity in methods of procedure.” He also writes that the list of instructions is important to help the students follow procedure and learn how to care for patients during childbirth. Then, as now, Toronto General was a major teaching hospital, and Wright was concerned that without written rules, the turnover meant birth procedures weren’t standard.

The plaque for the old Toronto General Hospital. Photo by Alan L. Brown of torontoplaques.com.

The plaque for the old Toronto General Hospital. Photo by Alan L. Brown of torontoplaques.com.

Now, Toronto General is part of the University Health Network of hospitals, which typically sends people to Mount Sinai for maternity care. The hospital has also moved to University Avenue, but a 1979 Toronto Historical Board plaque marks the old location at 70 Spruce Street.


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