Last Resort: Hospital Care in Canada
Denis Goulet, Université de Sherbrooke



For Canadians today, hospitals are part of a way of life. We find it perfectly normal to be born there, and to die there. But this was not always the case.

In the mid-19th century, Canadian hospitals were more charitable than medical institutions. Destitute patients went there for free care and were housed in two large wards, one for men, the other for women. An occasional doctor might stop by to examine them, but their day-to-day care was generally left to ward aides and nursing sisters. Small wonder that 'You only go there to die' became a popular saying.

The hospitals' vocation began changing in the 1870s. There were more doctors, surgeons and nurses, and they were more involved in the way care was provided. Patients were examined with greater frequency and in structured fashion. They were questioned, scrutinized, palpated. Temperatures were taken, heart rates were measured and soon blood pressure was being checked. Newly developed instruments were used to seek out the signs of their illness. The notion of cure was gaining currency.

With the invention of anaesthesia and the introduction of new disinfection methods, surgical operations became more common. This gave rise to operating rooms, as well as autopsy rooms. In the late 1800s, X-rays were thought to work miracles, and early radiologists bombarded their patients with radioactive particles.

Before long, these changes allowed doctors to treat injuries, which were widespread among factory workers. But first the patient had to get to a hospital. And so ambulances came into use, the earliest ones drawn by hard-pressed horses, much to the wrath of the SPCA.

Some hospitals, filled to overflowing, turned patients away. Even before the 20th century dawned, the modern hospital was showing its colours!