A postcard of a large victorian building. The entrance is recessed with an archway. The building is around 5 stories and has a roof with multiple pointed areas.

Healthcare Legacies: The Hospital for Sick Children

The Hospital for Sick Children

A postcard of a large victorian building. The entrance is recessed with an archway. The building is around 5 stories and has a roof with multiple pointed areas.

The Hospital For Sick Children, College Street, 1910. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Black and white image of nurses residence. There is a female nurse standing beside a counter, she is writing  something on the paper she is holding. The counter is filled with trays; the trays have teapots and a plate.

Hospital For Sick Children (1891-1951); Nurses’ Residence, Elizabeth St., e. side, betw. Gerrard & College Sts.; Interior, diet kitchen (west end). Toronto Public Library C 1-22a.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman in a nursing uniform. She is holding onto a young child who is trying to walk. The child is wearing leg braces and is holding horizontal polls that are set up on both their sides. In the foreground is a small doll.

Physotherapist with young polio patient, Sudbury, March 1953. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

A black-and-white image of a woman getting an injection. She is sitting down and looking towards a needle that is being injected into her right arm. The woman who is giving the injection is also looking towards the needle.

Mrs. Galbraith recieving a polio vaccine, North York, September 17, 1959. Courtesy of the Toronto Star Photograph Archive.

Treating the Young

Although hospitals are centuries-old institutions, a hospital that focuses only on children’s healthcare is a relatively recent idea. In the early 19th century, children’s hospitals began to open in England and the United States. But no such hospital existed in Canada.

While on a trip to Manchester, England in the 1860s, Toronto socialite Elizabeth McMaster was inspired by the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital. She returned to Toronto and made plans to open a similar hospital in Toronto. With a group of similar-minded women known as the Ladies Committee, McMaster raised funds to open the Hospital for Sick Children in 1875. This first hospital was simple, with only six beds. But it was open to all children, regardless of their ability to pay.


Early Days of SickKids

Finding secure funding for the hospital was difficult during its early years. Most offered their services to the hospital as volunteers: physicians provided free medical service, while others performed maintenance on the building for no cost. By 1877, the hospital had opened its doors to both inpatient and outpatient service. New patients could register each day at 2 p.m., when a physician was present.

Many of the hospital’s early patients suffered from long-term illnesses, such as tuberculosis. In 1889, the average stay for a patient was 64 days. Parental visits were limited to twice a week, except in extreme circumstances. To keep the children’s spirits up, hospital staff often organized activities and outings for patients, including visits to Queen’s Park. Rooms in the hospital were set aside as playrooms or for weekly Sunday school lessons.



Polio hits Toronto

Since its creation, SickKids, as it is known today, has played a prominent role in medical treatments related to children. In the early 20th century, polio was considered a significant health threat to children. Polio was known as “infantile paralysis” or “the crippler” because the virus could permanently damage the nerve cells that controlled the muscles, resulting in difficulty walking. Although anyone could contract the disease, children under five were considered the most at risk.

One of the deadliest outbreaks of polio in Toronto began in 1937. At the time, there was no effective treatment of the disease. Schools, public parks and pools were often shut due to fears of the virus’ spread. Many children suffering from polio came to SickKids, where they were often placed in an iron lung, one of the few polio treatments at the time. Due to a shortage of iron lungs during the 1937 outbreak, SickKids personnel put together “homemade” iron lungs from parts found in the hospital’s basement. The hospital was able to construct 27 iron lungs in only a few weeks’ time. 

Finding a Vaccine

Polio remained a health threat for decades, both in Canada and throughout the world. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that medical research finally brought polio under control. In 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk announced that his polio vaccine effectively “killed” the polio virus and was safe for widespread use.

Toronto scientists played a pivotal part in the distribution of the polio vaccine, often known as the Salk vaccine. Dr. Leone Farrell, senior researcher at Connaught Research Labs at the University of Toronto, developed a scientific process known as the “Toronto Method.” This method helped to grow the materials needed for the Salk vaccines at a faster rate. This meant more vaccines could be made and distributed quickly throughout the world.