Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

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Canada’s First Paediatric Hospital, Toronto’s “Sick Kids”

Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children was established in 1875. A focus on purity, the institution began milk pasteurization in 1908 to prevent dire diseases.

Young Maggie was rushed to the hospital, the victim of agonizing scalds. While the outcome of her life is not known, the little girl made Canadian history. On April 3, 1875, she was the first child admitted to the country’s first pediatric hospital in Toronto, Ontario.

Receiving care in the tub at Sick Kids Hospital.

Receiving care in the tub at Sick Kids Hospital.

Hospitalization for Sick Children

Opened in the spring of 1875, the Hospital for Sick Children was set up in an “11-room house in downtown Toronto,” at a rent of $320 a year for the Avenue Street building, noted “Our History” of the Sick Kids Hospital. A small operation initially, there were six patient beds. Managed by Elizabeth McMaster and the Ladies Committee, the hospital was organized as a charity to care for the ailing poor. (The Ladies Committee was a group of upper middle-class women dedicated to improving many aspects of society.) A visit to the hospital was not completely free for the sick. Families were encouraged to pay whatever they could afford toward medical treatment.

Poor parental care and unsanitary living conditions were seen as the cause of children’s illnesses in the 19th century. Hospital reports indicated the concern that children lived “in an atmosphere of filth and misery and evil, breathing bad air in wretchedly ventilated rooms, ready, from their sickly and scrofulous constitutions received by inheritance from their drunken and tainted parents,” said Noah Shiff in his thesis essay, “The Sweetest of All Charities.” The parents were at fault “not only for sores and deformities that must necessarily come from such birth-source, but for any passing disease.” The Ladies Committee of the hospital turned cleanliness into a moral issue, following the belief of Florence Nightingale in which “pure air, pure water, efficient drainage, cleanliness and light” were essential for good health.

Sick Children Separated from Parents

A busy place in its first year, the children’s hospital admitted over 40 patients for treatments, and outpatient services were provided for nearly 70 youngsters. Policies on visitors were stringent and harsh. When a child was admitted, he or she was immediately separated from their parents. Family were not permitted to stay with the no-doubt frightened child, and were only allowed to visit once or twice per week for a short time. Social class made a difference. In the 1920s, private and semi-private patients who paid for their own care could have visitors “daily between the hours of 2 and 4 p.m. Public-ward visiting remained at one hour weekly,” said Judith Young in “Social Class and Parental Visiting Rights.” Restrictive visiting policies remained in place until the mid-1950s.

Squeezed for space, the facility moved to larger quarters in 1876; the bed count was doubled to sixteen. According to the government’s “Schedule of Charity Aid” in 1881, two cents per day was paid per hospitalized child. The hospital’s operational funding depended mainly on public donations. The facility moved again to a more spacious building in 1881, and was under the operation of business managers lead by Chairman of the Board John Ross Robertson. Unofficially titled the Victoria Hospital for Sick Children by request of Toronto councillors, the hospital continued with its popular name of the Hospital for Sick Children. Located on the corner of Elizabeth and College Streets, the elegant dark stone building boasted four floors and 320 patient care beds.

Toronto Paediatric Hospital

Toronto Paediatric Hospital

Research Led to Pasteurization and Pablum

One of the hospital’s priorities was nutritional research. In keeping with their philosophy of pureness for good health, the hospital was in the forefront on pasteurization of milk, installing a plant in 1908. Three decades later, pasteurization became the standard method of treating milk in Canada, to eradicate its disease-causing pathogens such as listeriosis, salmonella, tuberculosis and e-coli. In 1919, Drs. Alan Brown, Frederick Tisdall and Theodore Drake developed a wholesome baby food that would save children from the devastating miseries of malnutrition. The life-saving innovation was Pablum.

The Hospital for Sick Children moved once more in 1951. The expansive building on University Avenue allowed the hospital to change their focus from nutritional research to congenital defects repair, said the Sick Kids history, and in the 1960s, to establish one of the first neonatal intensive care units in North America.

The newest incarnation of the hospital, now dubbed Sick Kids, has private rooms with bathrooms. Visiting policies have radically changed since inception of the pediatric hospital 135 years ago. There are now cots in the child’s room, encouraging parents to stay with their scared, sick child until they recover.


Our History, Sick Kids Hospital Accessed August 2, 2010

Schiff, Noah, Thesis – The Sweetest of All Charities: The Toronto Hospital for Sick Children’s Medical and Public Appeal, 1875 – 1905, University of Toronto (1999)

Young, Judith, Social Class and Parental Visiting Rights, essay in Canadian Health Care and the State: A Century of Evolution, edited by C. David Naylor, McGill-Queen’s University Press (1992)

This article first appeared on in 2010.  Copyright Susanna McLeod

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