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  • SickKids: The History of the Hospital for Sick Children by David Wright
  • Cynthia Comacchio
David Wright. SickKids: The History of the Hospital for Sick Children. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016. xiv + 460 pp. Ill. $39.95 (978-1-4426-4723-7).

Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children (now SickKids) is iconic among Canadian institutions as among generations of families who have confidently turned to its exemplary services to meet their children’s health needs. SickKids has been an international frontrunner in pediatric research, innovation, and practices for the better part of its history. David Wright takes the hospital’s story beyond the conventional celebratory chronicle of most such “official” histories. He presents a much more complex story by drawing on the rich hospital archives, contemporary print and photographic materials, medical texts for both professional use and public education, as well as oral histories by past and current associates. For all that any history about children is constrained by the reality that few have left their own documented views, Wright brings forward their perspectives as much as can be uncovered from adult-generated sources, especially in the “Visiting Hours” chapter.

The author carefully contextualizes the hospital’s 1875 founding by an ambitious “ladies committee” drawn primarily from Toronto’s prominent families and motivated by a sense of feminine Christian duty. Their leader, Elizabeth McMaster, was quickly surpassed, however, by John Ross Robertson, an important local [End Page 822] publisher, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. Robertson’s generous funding of a hospital supported precariously by charity effectively gave him the reins until his death in 1918. Wright’s chapter on Robertson, one of those ubiquitous but shadowy historical figures, gives the “paper tyrant” his due without in any way slighting the heroic, if necessarily limited, efforts of McMaster and her ladies. On the other hand, Dr. Alan Brown, hired by Robertson on his brash avowal to halve the hospital’s infant mortality rate, doesn’t quite receive the spotlight owed to him as SickKids’ long-standing physician-in-chief. Wright acknowledges Brown as the early twentieth century’s preeminent Canadian pediatrician and the driving force in innovation, invention (including the famous “mush” known as Pablum), publication, extensive government consultancy (including a prominent role in the Dionne Quintuplets story). He was also instrumental in the infant mortality campaigns nationwide, headed the University of Toronto’s pediatric department, and had an enormous formative influence in training generations of pediatric specialists, nurses, and researchers. Like Robertson, Brown has had little scholarly study dedicated to him. More than Robertson, and confirming the need for fuller treatment, his institutional domination was matched by his external, even international, influence.

As Wright states in his introduction, he strove to maintain the historian’s critical perspective while putting together this official history. The is most notable in his even coverage of the tragic series of infant deaths in 1980–81 that led to a nurse being charged with murder for allegedly injecting four of them with high quantities of digoxin, much internal and external investigation, including a Royal Commission, allegations of a hospital “cover-up” of medical errors and sloppiness, mishandlings of trial procedures, and her eventual acquittal—all carried out amidst a historically unprecedented media frenzy. The few quibbles I have concern, first, the puzzling reliance on British precedents as well as historiography in the introductory chapter, where Wright outlines how Victorian social reform, public health, and child welfare campaigns became entwined with the development of children’s hospitals. If any subject area has had extensive historical attention in Canada, it is that concerning the expansive category of Christian social reform. Wright is not a historian of Canada, but this historiography would have supported his analysis with more direct relevance. Moreover, while there is no denying the long-lasting residual colonialism in the recently created nation-state of Canada, Canadian child welfare efforts—including health care, as SickKids exemplifies—were arguably shaped just as much by American developments in reform, public health, and medicine. Many of the leading Canadian physicians of the time pursued specialized training in the United States: Brown trained under the renowned Dr. Emmett Holt at the Boston Children’s Hospital. This path is worth...


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