Healthcare Legacies: Grasett Park

Grasett Park

Two side by side images: one of a healthy woman, the other of the same woman after contracting cholera. The sick woman has a bluish tint to her skin which was caused by the dehydration that cholera causes.

A young woman depicted before and after contracting cholera, date unknown.

A pen illustration of an outdoor scene. A tree stands in the middle of the frame. In the distance, a body of water can be seen. Behind the tree are several tents and a small bridge. Several figures can be seen, two of which are dressed in nuns' habits.
Sisters tending to the Irish immigrants on the shore of Lake Ontario during the 1847 typhus epidemic. Circa 1945. Courtesy of the Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph, St. Joseph Region Archives.

Sisters tending to the Irish immigrants on the shore of Lake Ontario during the 1847 typhus epidemic. Circa 1945. Courtesy of the Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph, St. Joseph Region Archives.

Black and white image of 7 individuals in gowns and wearing masks.
Medical personnel battling the 1919 Spanish Flu. Courtesy of the St. James Cathedral Archives

Medical personnel battling the 1919 Spanish Flu. Courtesy of the St. James Cathedral Archives

Image of a tent structure made of glass and metal. Below is a stone surface that has been engraved with a map of part of downtown. To the right of the structure are some black stone benches.
Grasett Park, Adelaide Street West, June 15, 2022.

Grasett Park, Adelaide Street West, June 15, 2022.

Cholera in early York

Throughout Toronto’s history, there are have been several deadly outbreaks of disease, from typhus to COVID-19. One of the first significant diseases to sweep through the city was cholera, with epidemics in 1832 and 1834. For three months during the first outbreak in 1832, cholera ravaged the city, killing 200 people (approximately 5% of the city’s total population at the time).

At the time, no one knew how cholera spread and, as a result, many treatments and preventions were suggested. These included people hiding in bed with blankets over their heads, closing windows, or even smelling dried flowers. Unfortunately, none of these methods were effective. Cholera is a water-borne bacterial disease, which means Toronto’s drinking water was often the culprit in spreading the disease. At the time, Toronto’s drinking water usually came from Lake Ontario, which was an unchallenged dumping ground for dead animals, chamber pots, and other garbage – none of which was filtered out of the water before people drank it.

 

Preventative Measures

Although any understanding of what was causing the spread of cholera came too late to stop the first outbreak, the city’s leaders knew they had to take action to prevent such a situation from happening again. Wanting to take matters into their own hands, the then-town of York incorporated, officially becoming the City of Toronto.

This move allowed residents to take control of their own health affairs- establishing municipal infrastructure like city sewers, a city board of health, and even regular garbage collection. Although these measures were only starting to be implemented when another cholera outbreak occurred in Toronto in 1834, it meant the second outbreak was far less deadly than the first. 

 

Typhus and Dr. Grasett

Unfortunately, the second cholera epidemic was closely followed by another epidemic, which took hold over the city in the 1840s: typhus. Similar to cholera, few successful treatments were available at the time. Over half of those who contracted typhus died from the disease. Many newcomers had contracted typhus while on board crowded ships travelling to Canada.  

George Grasett moved to Toronto in 1844. As a physician, he worked in the city’s House of Industry as well as the Toronto Dispensary, providing free medical supplies and advice to those experiencing poverty in the city. In June 1847, Grasett became the Medical Superintendent at the Emigrant Hospital, a recently erected temporary extension of Toronto General. However, Grasett’s time caring for the sick was short-lived: he caught the very disease he was treating and died one month into his position in July 1847. 

 

Toronto’s healthcare legacy

On July 16, 2021, Grasett Park officially opened on the former site of the Emigrant Hospital. The park pays tribute to Toronto’s response to the typhus outbreak. Places like this allow us to pay tribute to the unity of Toronto’s citizens in the face of medical crises and the healthcare legacies that define our public health.

From the medical innovations at the University of Toronto to the trailblazing medical professionals practicing in the city, our medical history was forged by strong leaders from diverse walks of life and the citizens they treated. Our healthcare legacies are ever-changing, and as seen by continuing medical developments and lifesaving treatments, we can see the importance of community support in protecting our collective health.