Historicist: Your New Hospital for Sick Children
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Historicist: Your New Hospital for Sick Children

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Crowds lined up around the block to tour the new building at 555 University Avenue, January, 1951.

In the early months of 1951, The Hospital for Sick Children opened its long-awaited new facility at 555 University Avenue. Founded in 1875, the hospital had been operating out of 67 College Street (now the home of Canadian Blood Services) since 1891. At the time of its opening 67 College had been a state-of-the-art facility. By the 1940s, however, space at the hospital was increasingly cramped, and the property lacked land for much-needed expansion. Near the end of the decade, some newspapers reported the hospital being forced to keep beds in hallways, blocking doorways in the process, in an effort to meet demand.

Plans for a larger, up-to-date facility began as early as 1929, shortly after the hospital’s successful campaign to establish a branch facility at Thistletown. Even after the site at University Avenue and Gerrard Street was selected, however, progress was slowed by several factors, chiefly the Great Depression and World War II. The hospital wasted no time after the war: the first campaign explicitly aimed at raising money for a new hospital building began following V-E Day in 1945 and ran province wide, ultimately raising eight million dollars, mostly from corporate donors. The balance was made up in a second campaign targeted more at the general public, bringing the widely reported total up to $12.5 million. (By contrast, the previous hospital building cost $115,000 in 1889–1892). An article from the July 22, 1950 issue of Collier’s notes that “more than 200,000 men, women and children from Toronto and from the mining, paper and timber towns of Ontario gave sums ranging from five cents to $5,000.”

Construction of 555 University Avenue nearing completion, ca. 1950.

The hospital celebrated several landmark moments during the new facility’s construction, including the “turning of the first sod” on November 17, 1947, and the laying of the cornerstone on April 22, 1949. The cornerstone outside the University Avenue entrance includes a time capsule containing photographs, coins, stamps, newspapers, hospital letterhead, architectural drawings, and a map of Newfoundland, which had become Canada’s tenth province mere weeks before. Amongst the staff, executives, and politicians present at both ceremonies was Charles P. Fry, the hospital’s longest-serving employee, who as a young clerk in the hospital’s stores had attended the official opening of the 67 College Street hospital back in May of 1892.
The official opening of the new hospital facility took place on the afternoon of January 15, 1951, with the ribbon being cut by six of the hospital’s patients specifically selected to represent a cross-section of the institution: Dorothy Blackmere, a knee-surgery patient from Freeman, Ontario; Elaine Jackson, a “blue baby” from St. Stephen, New Brunswick; Robert Westlake and Dolores St. Germaine, polio patients from Toronto and Regina, respectively; David, a ward of the Children’s Aid Society being treated for asthma; and Anna, an Inuit from the Canadian north being treated for an eye condition. In addition to Anna, it is worth noting that David, being black, represented a visible minority, reflecting The Hospital for Sick Children’s mandate that the hospital be a place “where no child knocks in vain, regardless of race or religion.” Chairman of the Board of Trustees, R.A. Laidlaw, completed the hospital’s official opening by receiving the ceremonial golden key from one of the building’s architects, Robert Govan, and inserting it into the hospital’s main doors.

Front cover of the pamphlet made available at the official opening, 1951.

The official opening was widely attended, and included past and present staff, former patients, a broad range of the public, and notable politicians including Federal Minister of National Health and Welfare Paul Martin, Premier Leslie Frost, and Mayor Hiram McCallum. The building was not, however, immediately put into service: the hospital continued operations out of 67 College Street while 555 University Avenue remained open for “public inspection” from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. throughout the week. The public had, after all, financed much of the hospital’s cost, and wanted to verify that their money had been well spent.

Inside of the pamphlet made available at the official opening.

By the end of the week-long open house, it is believed that an estimated eighty-five thousand people toured the new facility. The Globe and Mail reported that the tours were conducted by one hundred volunteers, many of them doctors and nurses, working three shifts a day to exhibit patient rooms, isolation units, research laboratories, and a television-equipped lecture hall. For many, the most spectacular impression the hospital created came from the scale of the facility. The new hospital building featured 632 beds, almost twice the number available at 67 College Street, making it one of the largest hospitals in the world. (Interestingly, the hospital now has fewer beds than it did when it opened in 1951, chiefly a reflection of medical innovation which has reduced the length of hospital visits and limited the number of procedures which require overnight stays.) The public was evidently impressed: the newspapers ran enthusiastic articles and editorials for several weeks, and the Star reported that during the tours the public donated an additional $2,567.50 by throwing money into the new, state-of-the-art hydrotherapy pool.
Following the conclusion of the public tours, 555 University Avenue was closed for a brief time while the hospital made the transition to their new facility. While brand new equipment had been installed directly into the new hospital and displayed during the open house, existing equipment, supplies, and office records needed to be transferred from 67 College Street. This work was handled by many, including about eighty employees of Ontario Hydro and the Canadian Comstock Company, who volunteered more than four hundred hours on their days off. According to the Globe and Mail, the companies supplied twenty trucks and “helped speed the work of moving medical, surgical and laboratory equipment and also the hospital’s library.”

555 University, operational, in the mid-1950s. Photo by Jones & Morris Commercial Photographers.

While this took place, the hospital administration assiduously monitored the transition and ensured that the new facility would be ready for occupancy on schedule: the minutes of the Moving Committee reveal that deep care was paid to the details of the operation. The Committee ensured that each department moved all of its equipment, supplies, and records on schedule and that all obsolete equipment at 67 College Street not making the transition was properly disposed of. Of considerable concern was that all staff, particularly those in maintenance, be adequately prepared and trained for work in the new, unfamiliar facility. During this time 67 College Street continued to treat and accept new patients, although the hospital limited new admissions to emergency cases in the two weeks preceding the transfer of patients.
The attention to detail is revealed in how much scrutiny was given to the perhaps seemingly trivial matter of elevator operators. The Hospital for Sick Children originally intended to hire female operators for the building’s central bank of elevators, until a survey revealed that all other Toronto hospitals exclusively used male operators. Reportedly, “some hospitals indicated that they had previously tried out female help in this division but were not too satisfied with the results and had to return to the employment of male operators”—it does not specify the way the women were deemed unsatisfactory. Even once the decision was made to hire men in this capacity, concern remained as “the question of employing suitable men as elevator operators could not be too greatly emphasized because of their contact with the public.” By mid-January, the minutes of the Moving Committee reveal that nine men had been hired as elevator operators, and discussion had moved on to the colour of their uniforms.
Once the equipment and supplies were in place, the final step was the all-important transfer of the 193 in-patients from 67 College Street to 555 University Avenue. In what the Star called “one of the strangest parades ever to be seen in Toronto,” this commenced shortly after 7:30 on the morning of February 4—a Sunday (a Sunday was chosen so as to avoid traffic delays), which raised concerns from the Moving Committee that the hospital would need to secure a special permit, as they thought the move might contravene the Lord’s Day Act.
The patients who were deemed most critical were transferred by ambulance and by four trucks supplied by the Red Cross, but most of the patients were transferred by regular cars, frequently the personal cars of hospital staff. The first two patients, Helen Henderson and Beverley Smith were, in fact, personally ferried by the Chairman of the hospital’s Board of Trustees, R.A. Laidlaw.

Helen Henderson (left) and Beverley Smith (right), the first two patients transferred from 67 College Street, with two unknown nurses and R.A. Laidlaw, February 4, 1951. Photo by Hydro News.

In addition to relevant medical attention (some children were moved in oxygen tents, and several babies were in incubators), each child was heavily wrapped in blankets to protect them from the cold, and had a card with a number pinned to them so that they could be easily transferred to the correct ward. The process went extremely smoothly, with the Star attributing this to detailed planning, specifically the “eighteen-page directive prepared earlier by J.H.W. Bower, hospital superintendent, and Nurse Alice Boxill. So well were the orders carried out that the job was finished ahead of time.” The Hospital for Sick Children’s annual report for 1951 notes that “the entire move was completed by 10:30 a.m. with patients all in their proper locations in the new building, and the noonday meal was served to patients and staff at the regular hour.” During the move, five additional emergency cases were admitted to the new hospital.
The opening of the building at 555 University Avenue was merely the first phase in a long-term plan which has since seen much expansion on the property. The central portion of the new building was expanded later in the year to create interns’ quarters, so that by the time Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh visited in October, the building had already changed since the initial open house.
In 1961, a mere ten years after 555 University Avenue opened, work began on the $9.5-million-dollar Gerrard Street wing and a new emergency department; in the interim the hospital had already constructed a new parking garage and a new nurses’ residence. The Hospital for Sick Children continues to give public tours, and while these tours now focus mainly on the major Atrium addition designed by Zeidler Roberts Partnership Architects, they invariably include a stop in the original 555 University Avenue building.
Additional material from the May 20, 1948, January 16, 1951, and February 5, 1951 editions of the Toronto Telegram; the April 23, 1949, January 5, 1951, January 8, 1951, January 16, 1951, January 29, 1951, and February 5, 1951 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the January 5, 1951, January 26, 1951, and February 3, 1951 editions of the Toronto Star.
All images courtesy of The Hospital for Sick Children Archives.