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History of SickKids is an integral part of history of paediatrics

Posted on Jun 12 2017 by the Canadian Paediatric Society  |  Permalink

Topic(s): Public education

Denis Daneman, MBBCh FRCPC DSc(Med) FFPAED (Hon)RCPI
Paediatrician-in-Chief Emeritus, The Hospital for Sick Children
Chair Emeritus, Department of Paediatrics, University of Toronto

For some time, most particularly during my term as Chair/Chief of Paediatrics at the University of Toronto and SickKids, I have been recommending books to my colleagues.  Why? One reason is that books provide opportunities to share important experiences and ideas. They humanize us.

At the top of my current “must-read” list is David Wright’s superb SickKids: The History of The Hospital for Sick Children (University of Toronto Press, 2016). First, my conflicts: I have been associated with Sick Kids since 1972, when I arrived as an elective medical student; I was on the editorial board for this book and helped to choose the author; and, finally, David acknowledges my “enthusiastic support” for the research aspects of the book, having helped secure Research Ethics Board approval to plumb the archives.

If you are interested in history, or simply enjoy a good book, you ought to read it. If you are a paediatrician or other child health care professional, or if you are at all interested in health and health care, then you MUST read it.

Just before the book was released, I attended the Lauren Harris exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I was riveted by his early paintings of the Toronto neighbourhood called St. John’s Ward or just “The Ward,” near present day SickKids. I was struck by the scenes that Harris has on his canvasses are the same as those that David paints so effectively with his prose.

One word that most accurately summarizes this 400-page-plus book is “context”. Starting with the history of children’s hospitals around the world, Wright continuously puts SickKids in the contexts of time, place and local and international history: From its humble beginnings as a place of respite for physically challenged or otherwise chronically ill children from poor families to its rightful place as one of the world’s leading children’s hospitals, from the religious fervor of Elizabeth McMaster and the volunteers to the determination (backed up by mind-boggling philanthropy) of John Ross Robertson, the newspaper tycoon or tyrant, depending on which way you look at him to recent events, Wright pulls no punches.

The further back, the broader is the canvas of context, the waves of immigration to The Ward, the pasteurization of milk, the development of Pablum and the emergence of the hospital’s Research Institute from the royalties derived from it, the evolution of modern paediatric care and the promises of future advances.

There are colourful characters galore, perhaps none more controversial and potentially transformative than Alan Brown, paediatrician-in-chief for 32 years (1919-51). A larger-than-life, omnipresent physician, he dominated paediatrics across Canada. The one blot against Brown and his surgeon-in-chief colleague, DE Robertson was the exclusion of Jewish physicians from training or staff positions.

The book is about building both its reputation as a premier paediatric academic institution, but also its bricks and mortar: from the opening of the hospital on its current site in 1951, to the glorious architectural masterpieces, the Eberhardt Zeidler-designed Atrium (1993) and the Diamond Schmidt-designed Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning (2013).

Those of us who work for a long time in one institution get to know intimately its nooks and crannies, its successes and its challenges, its evolving culture(s). SickKids has a special place in the scientific and social history of Canadian health care. Reading this book reinforces that without sugar-coating the challenges.

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