Medicine

Early Healthcare in Ottawa and Bytown: 1800-1850s

During the early 1800s, people couldn’t get professional health care and treatment in Bytown. Canada was a land of pioneer homesteads. Large commercial centres were few and far between, and the government focused on developing industry and infrastructure, so people typically took care of their own medical needs.

In 1826, Colonel By had a 20 bed military hospital built on Barracks Hill, now Parliament Hill, for soldiers working on the canal. Civilians were admitted to the facility if bed space was available.

In 1827, Dr. A.J. Christie arrived in Bytown as a military doctor and opened one of the first civilian practices in the region. Although Dr. Christie’s credentials to practice medicine cannot be substantiated, he did provide some care to area residents. Christie spent two years studying mathematics at Marischal College in Scotland, and often learned medical procedures through observation and newspaper articles. The government did not fund healthcare, so patients paid doctors directly, often exchanging goods and services—for instance produce, meat, or labour—for medical care.

At this time, infectious diseases were a major public health concern. Quarantine, sanitation, and vaccination could prevent illness from spreading, but when epidemics broke out, people could not fend for themselves. Organized public care emerged largely in response to emergencies.

 

1978.0002.1195a-b
Quinine box, 19th C.
Although not necessarily a deadly disease, Malaria was a concern throughout the 19th Century. Quinine bark derivatives were used to treat only symptoms, as the disease was incurable. Label reads "SOUTH END EXCELSIOR PHARMACY, W.F. GIBSON, DISPENSING CHEMIST, 1105 BANK ST, OTTAWA. No. Dr.[?], Quinine Capsules, 3gr."

TITLE Quinine box
DATE
19th C.
ITEM NUMBER
1978.0002.1195a-b
DESCRIPTION
Although not necessarily a deadly disease, Malaria was a concern throughout the 19th Century. Quinine bark derivatives were used to treat only symptoms, as the disease was incurable. Label reads "SOUTH END EXCELSIOR PHARMACY, W.F. GIBSON, DISPENSING CHEMIST, 1105 BANK ST, OTTAWA. No. Dr.[?], Quinine Capsules, 3gr."

Timeline of medical crises in Bytown:

  • 1828 - Malaria outbreak. Few people died, and authorities did not provide much assistance.
  • 1832 - International Cholera pandemic reached Canada. Bytown created a temporary Board of Health to deal with the disease for the duration of the outbreak. A temporary Cholera Hospital treated and quarantined infected people.
  • 1834 - A second, less-severe wave of cholera struck. The village reopened the Cholera Hospital and then tore it down after the disease passed.
  • 1847 - Typhus pandemic hit Canada and swept through Bytown. Typhus spread through immigration, particularly via Irish immigrants exposed to the disease during the Potato Famine in Ireland. Since the Ottawa River and Rideau Canal were gateways to the west, many people passed through the area, bringing Typhus with them.

The typhus epidemic was particularly important because it led Bytown to build the first Protestant General Hospital, and fostered the Governor to promote a city-funded permanent Board of Health. The concept was dropped, and it would be many years before the idea was put into action.

In 1845, the Grey Nuns led by Mother Elizabeth Bruyère settled in Bytown and built a seven-bed hospital for the public, the first general hospital.

 

CA-015182 
Ottawa General Hospital, n.d.
General Hospital, Convent, and School of Mère Bruyére.

TITLE Ottawa General Hospital
DATE
18--.
ITEM NUMBER
CA-015182
DESCRIPTION
General Hospital, Convent, and School of Mère Bruyére.

When typhus hit, many people were infected and the hospital could not keep up - the sick were quarantined in run-down shacks along the Rideau Canal.
The conditions were so bad that the Catholic Grey Nuns and Bytown’s Protestant majority joined forces to care for the sick. They put aside their differences and erected several hospital buildings. Religious tensions re-emerged within the administration of the general hospital after the typhus epidemic passed, and the Protestants built their General Hospital in 1849

 

CA-015183
County of Carleton General Protestant Hospital, n.d.
First building used from ca.1850 to ca.1874.

TITLE County of Carleton General Protestant Hospital
DATE
18--
ITEM NUMBER
CA-015183
DESCRIPTION
First building used from ca.1850 to ca.1874.

The first stone hospital was erected in 1852, destined to become a small pox and isolation hospital; the usual construction method was to use wood.

While the idea of establishing a permanent board of health was initiated in 1851, nothing was done until 1886. At this time, a Medical Officer was appointed to the city and a permanent Board of Health was established with the Public Health Act of the Provincial Statutes.

The Billings Family and Medicine

[top]