The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent social distancing measures are unprecedented in our lifetime. Many people wonder if the world we knew will ever return. History reminds us that this has happened to our city and country before and our society is a product of these previous traumas.
Most people remember the 2003 SARS crisis in Toronto, and the resulting loss of many lives, especially those of healthcare workers. There has been much in the news lately to remind us of the 1918-19 influenza epidemic that killed millions worldwide and many in Toronto. Few are aware of a pandemic that resulted in the greatest single loss of life in Toronto's history, when expressed as percentage of the population at that time, than either SARS or the 1918-19 influenza epidemic, and that was the 1847 Typhus epidemic.
In 1847, Ireland was suffering through the third year of a devastating famine. Much of the population depended almost entirely on potatoes for sustenance. When the potato crop failed in 1845 due to a blight, millions were faced with the prospect of starvation. To escape that fate, many turned to emigration to North America. Close to 100,000 migrants left Ireland to journey to Canada. The conditions on board those ships were appalling, with hundreds of people often crammed into small spaces, below decks.
During the journey, contagious and deadly typhus raged amongst people in close quarters without the means to separate the sick from the healthy. During the summer of 1847, 38,000 of these poor, sick and starving migrants landed on the docks in Toronto, where the resident population of the city was under 20,000. Today, this would be comparable to 6 million refugees arriving in Toronto in a single summer. It was a public health emergency and economic crisis of immense proportions.
Healthcare in the 1840’s
During the nineteenth century, the care of the sick and dying was considered mostly a private concern, and the family home was considered the best place for treatment. The well-to-do paid for the services of a physician, but those without the means for at-home care relied on churches and religious charitable organizations for aid. That said, wealthy Torontonians, most of whom were active Christians, were motivated by a religious charitable impulse to help those in need. In 1819, the Upper Canadian government endowed the city with a parcel of 400 acres to be used for medical purposes. The building would not be completed until 1820, making this year, the bicentenary year of institutional healthcare in Toronto.
The Emigrant Hospital
As early as May 1847, various proposals were made for the construction of an Emigrant Hospital including an addition to the hospital, the appropriation of a military barracks, or the construction of a new building at a site on the peninsula, now known as the Toronto Islands. Initially, the city’s Board of Health preferred to use provincial government funds to improve the Fever Sheds at Dr. Rees’ Wharf instead. Yet by mid-June 1847, when over 2,500 migrants had already arrived, it was clear that the sheds at Dr. Rees’ Wharf were insufficient to house the number of ill emigrants arriving daily to the city. Reports from the quarantine station at Grosse Ile in Lower Canada (now Quebec) and from ports to the east made it clear that Toronto could expect even more arrivals before the summer sailing season was at a close. A meeting of the city’s Board of Health on June 16th announced a deal with the trustees of the Hospital to transfer management of the building to the Board.
The continued steady stream of typhus patients into the city necessitated an almost immediate expansion of the Emigrant Hospital’s facilities. Within weeks of its opening, the hospital reached capacity and the Board of Health issued a tender for the construction of two sheds on the hospital grounds, each 75 feet by 25 feet. Many more sheds were constructed over the course of the summer. An observer noted that these sheds occupied “almost the whole of the vacant land” outside the hospital. Newspaper reports indicate that the number of patients in the hospital peaked in August at over 800. With Fever Sheds and wards at capacity, the Board of Health ordered that the hospital’s dining rooms be converted into wards.
The staff complement at the Emigrant Hospital was typical of any mid-nineteenth-century hospital. At the top of the staff hierarchy was a group of physicians and surgeons, some "resident", and others “visiting.” The Chief Attending Surgeon was Dr. George Robert Grasett. Dr. Grasett was born in 1811, the second of six sons to military surgeon, Dr. Henry Grasett and Ann Bligh Stevenson. He was born in Lisbon, Portugal where his father was stationed with the 48th Regiment of the British army. George Robert’s eldest brother, Henry James, studied at Cambridge and became a prominent Church of England clergyman and was curate to Bishop John Strachan at St. James’ Cathedral, Toronto by the 1840s.
Dr. George Robert Grasett
Dr. Grasett was a medical professional with a drive to help those less fortunate than himself. In addition to his own practice, he was active with the city’s House of Industry, and a founding member of the Toronto General Dispensary, which provided “medical and surgical advice and medicines to the indigent sick.” In June 1847, he secured the appointment of Chief Attending Surgeon at the newly opened Emigrant Hospital. On July 16th, less than a month after taking up his appointment on the 18th of June, Dr. Grasett succumbed to the very illness he had dedicated himself to treating. Dr. Grasett’s obituary praised him for his unceasing devotion to the “amelioration of the sufferings of his fellow men, irrespective of hire or reward.”
Dr. Grasett was not the only medical officer to die in the discharge of his or her duty.
Dr. Joseph Hamilton
Dr. Hamilton was another doctor in attendance at the Fever Sheds. He died of typhus fever on November 15 and was buried at St. James’ cemetery on November 17, 1847. In ‘The Medical Profession in Upper Canada 1783 -1850’, Dr. F.C. Mewburn is quoted as saying: The Doctor was a man of high attainments, most gentlemanly in manner and appearance; he had practiced in London, England as a physician; but came to Canada in 1835 and commenced farming at Queenston, Ontario. His only connection to the profession was in consultation, and his opinion was highly valued. He moved to Toronto; died in the discharge of his duty there, having contracted typhus at the Emigrant Hospital.”
Bishop Michael Power
Bishop Michael Power was the first Roman Catholic Bishop of Toronto. He is recognized as being singularly responsible for coordinating and encouraging the city in its preparations for the arrival of the migrants in June 1847. He spent the entire summer on a daily basis, comforting the sick and dying with the last rights and exposing himself fearlessly to the disease, which he contracted and died of on October 1st, 1847.
Nurse Susan Bailey
Nurse Susan Bailey, only 32, died in August 1847 of the ‘fever’. Though we have much yet to learn about Nurse Bailey, she is nevertheless representative of those medical workers who put themselves in harm’s way in the treatment of the sick and dying in the summer of 1847.
Emigrant Agent, Edward McElderry
McElderry was responsible for coordinating the initial reception of the destitute and often gravely-ill Irish migrants, who arrived each day by the hundreds in Toronto on Dr. Rees’ Warf. Like Dr. Grasett and Nurse Bailey, McElderry succumbed to ‘fever’ on the 29th of October, 1847. He left a pregnant wife and six children.
John McNabb & Richard Jones
These two young men were orderlies at the hospital. John died of the fever on August 25, 1847 and was buried the next day, August 26th. Richard died of the fever on August 24, 1847 and was buried the same day.
A nurse born in England, died on July 29th, 1847 at the age of 26.
An orderly from England, died on August 14th, 1847, at the age of 21.
Sarah Jane Sherwood
A nurse born in Ireland, died on August 22nd, 1847, at the age of 23.
A nurse from Ireland, died on September 8th, 1847, at the age of 18.
Also a nurse from Ireland, died on September 22nd, 1847, at the age of 55.
These notable individuals played a pivotal role in a period of great transition in Toronto and in Canada. The essential medical and humanitarian services they provided to the newly arrived and desperate Irish migrants laid the foundation for the Canada we know today. These people not only aided the influx of Irish migrants, who became the ancestors of many modern-day Canadians, but also established a heritage of kindness to those less fortunate than themselves that carries on to this very day.
During the 1847 epidemic, fear of a deadly disease caused some people to blame, shun and scapegoat the Irish; today there are those who irresponsibly label COVID-19 the Chinese or Wuhan virus. There are however, many frontline workers of every faith and background working tirelessly to help the vulnerable and fight the spread of COVID-19 today, just as there were in 1847.
Ireland Park Foundation was planning to open a commemorative public space this summer, Dr. George Robert Grasett Park, in honour of Dr. Grasett and the many medical professionals who died while tending to those who suffered from Typhus. We have had to postpone the official opening of the park until the summer of 2021 but we believe it is important to mark the occasion and take inspiration from the dates of Dr. Grasett’s time at the Emigrant Hospital, June 18th -July 16th, 1847.
Despite immense technological advances, we are faced with a disease today for which we also do not yet have a cure or preventative vaccine. Isolation of the infirm from the healthy is the primary method of preventing the spread of COVID-19. In 1847 there was no cure for Typhus. Neither was there a cure for Cholera in 1832, Influenza in 1918, or Polio in the 1950s, or SARS in 2003, or indeed, Covid-19 in 2020. Just as in 1847, many people today are risking their health and the health of their families to take care of the sick and the vulnerable.
Outside of the medical profession, many more are also buying groceries, making masks and gowns and providing childcare, preparing food for those risking their lives in health care settings.
While much has changed in technology and science, there is a constancy of the human spirit. Thousands of those Irish migrants went on to become successful contributors to our city and our country. It is with this in mind that Ireland Park Foundation wishes to remind those who pass this park site, on land that was part of the original Hospital Reserve, that the sacrifice of these individuals is not just the legacy of the past, but a legacy that enriches our present and inspires our future.
In the midst of the tragedy of 1847, there was human kindness, just as we find it in our country today.
With special thanks to Dr. Laura Smith, PhD, for historical background research.