Points of Interest > Toronto General Hospital

Toronto’s first civilian hospital, York General Hospital (Toronto General Hospital after 1834), opened at Simcoe and King streets in 1829. Beset by financial problems, the trustees of the hospital were forced by the early 1850s to consider more creative solutions to support the hospital’s ongoing operation. Aware that the land on which the hospital sat (the block bounded by today’s King, John, Simcoe, and Wellington Streets, where Metro Hall now stands) had dramatically increased in value in the thirty years since the building was erected, and seeking to expand their facilities, the trustees resolved in September 1853 to erect a larger building on a plot of land in the former government park reserve east of Parliament Street—land they had held in trust since 1819. The Trustees worked quickly to set their plans in motion, selecting architect William Hay’s design for a grand building in classical Gothic style and advertising for lease the former lots at King and John Streets. According to C.K. Clarke, former Superintendent of the Hospital and author of a 1913 commemorative history of the institution, the lots went quickly at public auction in 1853, generating a total capital of about 800 pounds annually to feed back into hospital coffers.

image
Notman, William (firm, Montreal), Toronto General Hospital (1856-1913), 1868. Reproduced from the Toronto Public Library website http://www.tpl.toronto.on.ca.

The relocation of the hospital was not without controversy, however. Contemporaries expressed concerns about “wandering livestock” in the area east of Parliament Street and the high incidence of ague generated from the Don marshes to the south.  An 1853 editorial in the Upper Canada Journal of Medical, Surgical and Physical Science added fuel to the debate.  The editors of the journal outlined three arguments against the east-end location.  The first and “most strenuous” of these was the disadvantages it placed on the public due to its distance from the centre.  “Only picture to yourself,” the editors wrote, “the necessity of conveying in the middle of winter, perhaps upon a shutter, any poor man who may chance to meet with a serious accident at the western end, a distance of four or five miles, before he could be received into hospital.”  Second, they expressed concerns about the site’s proximity to the ague-producing marshlands of the Don, located about 1.5 kilometres to the south (see the Don Blockhouse POI for a discussion of the connection between marshlands, miasmas and malaria). “When we consider,” they argued, “that during the past summer ague has prevailed very extensively throughout the east part of the city, so that scarcely a house has been free from its visitation, how shall we expect the new General Hospital to escape its influence?” Finally, the editors pointed out the considerable inconvenience that the proposed location would place upon medical students obligated to walk the almost four miles between the Medical School at Trinity College and the hospital “in search of practical knowledge.”

Despite these protests, construction went ahead at the four acre location on Gerrard Street East (between Sackville and Sumach Streets) in 1854. The hospital opened its first wing to the public in 1856. With its five high towers surrounding a central castle-like structure, the building was considered among the most impressive structures in the city. Its modern amenities, including “four bathrooms… per floor, water hydrants in every hallway, and ventilation to clean the foul air,” set it apart from its contemporaries. In the years that followed, the site was used as a teaching hospital for medical students from three universities; Canada’s second school of nursing opened on the premises in 1861.

In 1913, the Toronto General Hospital moved to more spacious quarters on College Street, east of University Avenue. Little remains of the Gerrard Street site beyond a Toronto Historical Board plaque on Spruce Street at Gifford Street, and some stones in neighbouring gardens.

Text: Jennifer Bonnell and Lost Rivers

Sources

Clarke, C.K. A History of the Toronto General Hospital: including an account of the medal of the Loyal and Patriotic Society of 1812. Toronto: William Briggs, 1913.

“Toronto General Hospital,” Upper Canada Journal of Medical, Surgical and Physical Science 3.2 (1853-54): 69-70.

Toronto Historical Association. A Glimpse of Toronto's history: Opportunities for the Commemoration of Lost Historic Sites (Toronto: Toronto Historical Association and the Maps Project, City of Toronto Urban Development Services, 2002), MPLS #142.

 

Jennifer Bonnell & Marcel Fortin, 2009. A member project of NiCHE in partnership
with the University of Toronto Libraries - Map & Data Library Contact Us