- SickKids: The History of the Hospital for Sick Children by David Wright
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016, xiv + 462 p., $29.95
Pediatric hospitals are landmarks in many American cities. They are often sprawling complexes that care for young patients while parents stay morning, noon, and night by their children’s bedsides. Families come from near and far, with the top institutions attracting international as well as local patients. Pediatric hospitals are bustling hubs, with doctors, nurses, support staff, researchers, children, families, and visitors constantly moving within their walls. They are places where children go, expecting to get better.
Contemporary pediatric hospitals often started from humble beginnings and have evolved over the past 150 years into the institutions we know today. David Wright’s book SickKids: The History of the Hospital for Sick Children tells the story of one of North America’s premier pediatric hospitals, Toronto’s “SickKids.” Although focused on a single institution, SickKids maps onto many other children’s hospitals’ histories. As such, it provides important insight into the changing nature of pediatric health care over the past century and a half.
Wright opens the book in the mid-nineteenth century, when new ideas about childhood emerged and physicians developed a burgeoning interest in children’s diseases (Chapter 1). He details the work of the “Ladies Committee” that opened the hospital, including their dual mission of healthcare and moral instruction, and the limited scale of patient care (Chapter 2). Wright continues [End Page 524] to describe the hospital’s growth, including newspaper proprietor John Ross Robertson’s late nineteenth-century takeover of the eight-patient hospital. Under Robertson, SickKids moved from a converted home into its own building that could serve 140 patients at one time (Chapter 3).
Moving through the mid-twentieth century, SickKids explains physicians’ discontent in the 1940s as they protested the “antiquated” and “over crowded” hospital, describing it as “dirty and infested with vermin” (192). Wright traces this through the construction of a new, modern hospital that opened in 1951. He details the fanfare that accompanied SickKids’ new building, as it could treat 635 patients and boasted the latest technologies (Chapter 9). Wright brings readers to modern day, describing SickKids as an international hospital that serves children both inside and beyond its walls, capitalizing on telemedicine and other technologies (Chapter 16).
SickKids is institutional history at its best. Wright weaves the hospital’s evolution with stories about celebrated discoveries, changing standards of care, and institutional scandals. Wright notes that the book uses the “professional standards of historical scholarship” and that he tries to “emphasize failures as well as triumphs, and to embrace the ambiguities of historical action” (5). He accomplishes his goals.
Arranged in (roughly) chronological order, SickKids provides something for scholars across many fields. Given its central subject, the book provides rich ground for historians of childhood and youth, architectural historians, and historians of medicine and technology. For those interested in gender and medicine, Wright dives deep into the role of women in the hospital, from its founding members (Chapter 2), to the Women’s Auxiliary (Chapter 9), to the nurses (Chapter 11) and physicians who appear throughout. SickKids also provides interesting insights into the history of surgery and its intersections with pediatrics, in particular, through the hospital’s treatment of children with rickets, tuberculosis, and polio in the first half of the twentieth century (Chapters 4 and 7). Ethicists’ interests may be piqued by Wright’s accounts of several troubling incidents that occurred at the hospital, including patients’ Digoxinrelated deaths (Chapter 12) and a research study scandal involving an experimental drug for patients with Thalassemia (Chapter 14). This is just a small sample of the myriad subjects SickKids covers.
For all of its strengths, there a few aspects that historians may find lacking. Patients’ perspectives and voices rarely come to the surface – a disappointing, although understandable, omission given [End Page 525] the difficulty of accessing children’s voices in the historical record. There is also less historical framing and direct scholarly engagement than an academic audience may desire. In addition, Wright seems to assume his...