Over the last few years, Montreal has witnessed the demise of several historic medical institutions. It began with the Royal Victoria Hospital, which closed its doors in 2015. Since that time, other Montreal medical landmarks have followed suit, as two mega-hospitals neared completion. Hôtel-Dieu is scheduled to become condominiums, Saint-Luc will be razed entirely, and the Children's Memorial Hospital may become the future site of the Montreal Expos, should they ever return to the city. It is perhaps not surprising that the imminent closure of such revered medical institutions would occasion considerable angst and much historical reflection from their respective communities–both in terms of their future as civic buildings as well as their legacy as [End Page 833] places of healing. With this in mind, and with the expectation that the Montreal General Hospital itself will join the cluster of vacated buildings, two senior physicians began the long process of cobbling together a history of their beloved institution.
The Montreal General Hospital is indeed a venerable medical institution, important not only to the social history of Montreal but also to Canadian medical history more generally. It began life in a manner not unlike other colonial infirmaries, carrying the torch of British charitable tradition. It received a Royal Charter in 1823 and moved from a small rented home to a permanent hospital, on Dorchester Street, hosting four score patients. A complicated set of legal disputes involving the will of James McGill led to the creation of the Montreal Medical Institution and, ultimately, to the incorporation of this training institute into the newly formed McGill University, thereby establishing Canada's first formal, university-based medical school. The Montreal General Hospital became the principal teaching hospital for McGill medical students for most of the nineteenth century. It had powerful patrons (in particular, the Molson family and a supportive network of Freemason lodges in the city), the financial influence of which resulted in the recruitment and retention of impressive medical practitioners and educators. The Victorian-era hospital featured no less a person than Thomas Roddick (who would establish the Dominion Medical Council) as well as William Osler, the "father" of modern medical practice, who started his career there as a pathologist.
This being Montreal, of course, sectarianism informed all public projects, hospitals included. The Montreal General Hospital was the "Protestant" or "English" hospital, in contrast to Hôtel-Dieu, which was the "Catholic" or "French" general hospital. The sectarian and linguistic tensions played themselves out in awkward ways, particularly since the huddled masses of indigent poor in the middle of the nineteenth century were mostly poor Catholic Irish who did not speak French. However, the Montreal General did indeed serve those fleeing the Irish Famine and, contrary to many British general infirmaries at the time, also attended those with active infectious diseases. By the turn of the century, the McGill network of hospitals had expanded to include the magnificent Royal Victoria Hospital and a smaller, more modest children's hospital. As happened in Toronto, the frustration of the Jewish community in Montreal (arising from their exclusion from medical staff positions) led to a Jewish General Hospital on the other side of the mountain. Meanwhile, the Montreal campus of Université Laval would morph into the Université de Montréal, with its own network–centred at Hôtel-Dieu but also including Notre-Dame, [End Page 834] Saint-Luc, and a separate francophone children's hospital (Sainte-Justine). Even the Victorian lunatic asylums–what would become the Douglas and the Louis-H. Lafontaine–would be segregated along sectarian lines. These two substantial hospital networks would frame medical services in Montreal throughout the twentieth century in the decades before and after the advent of hospitalization insurance, which was inaugurated in Quebec in 1961.
Joseph Hanaway and John Burgess, the two co-editors of The General, are both senior medical practitioners with close ties to the Montreal General Hospital. They chose to write, or rather edit, an...