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Sick Kids: The History of the Hospital for Sick Children

By: David Wright

Audio Interview

This week we revisit our discussion of Sick Kids: The History of the Hospital for Sick Children, a monograph by David Wright, Professor of History at McGill University. You can listen to the interview here. This episode originally appeared as Season 7, Episode 11 of the SHCY Podcast, which you can subscribe to on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

This episode of Featured Books was produced by Hugh Bakhurst in the Allan Slaight Radio Institute at Ryerson University and distributed by the Champlain Society, here. SHCY thanks them, Greg Marchildon and David Wright for permission to circulate the interview.

This review appeared in The Canadian Historical Review 98, no. 2 (June 2017): 403-405.

Sick Kids: The History of the Hospital for Sick Children.

David Wright, with a Foreward by Mary Jo Haddad.

Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.

Everything that can go wrong with commissioned institutional histories usually does. Sponsors choose bad authors, authors fail to perform, sponsors and authors turn on one another, the books do not get written. Or they get written badly, ending up as one-dimensional celebrations of fifty, 100, 150, and so on years of institutional achievement. Lavish illustrations, great length, and exhaustive indexes mask bad writing and worse interpretation. Perhaps no one cares, so long as the sponsors have a product to give away during their centennial, sesquicentennial, bicentennial, and so on celebrations.

Having been burdened, and burned, so often by having to review or blurb institutional histories, I had misgivings about getting involved with David Wright's commissioned history of Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. The first chapter, setting the British context for the emergence of a Toronto children's hospital in the 1870s, was not hugely encouraging. It seemed a little too academic - sound history, impeccable understanding of the right questions to ask, but neither gripping nor totally clear. Would lay readers be interested? Would the sponsors be happy?

How wrong I was. The further I got into Wright's history, the more engaged I became with the prose that, in fact, combines splendid scholarship with compelling readability and wise judgement. Sick Kids: The History of the Hospital for Sick Children became difficult to put down, which is the highest praise I can give for an institutional history. It is a splendid achievement (and, yes, its illustrations and index are superb, its length just right), a credit to both the author's skills and the hospital's belief that it was important to have a professional historian write its history. Its readership will be wide; its contributions to various areas of social and medical history are substantial.

Sick Kids opened in 1875 in rented houses in downtown Toronto as a charitable enterprise, founded by deeply religious women, aimed at bringing medical care to disadvantaged children. Childhood had become conceptualized as a distinct period of life. The work of the hospital reflected an ongoing dialectic between health care's expanding capabilities and shifting patterns of infant and childhood ailments.

David Wright is a senior medical historian (currently chair of the History Department at McGill University) who won a competition to undertake this project. He blends chronology and themes in beautifully crafted chapters, outlining the hospital's early emphasis on orthopaedic work (club feet and crooked limbs), the struggles against the ravages of infectious disease that led to pioneering public health engagement as well as a research interest in pure food (the Pablum story is not at all bland), the resurgence of surgical excellence after the Second World War, and the hospital's transformation in our time into a global centre of advanced paediatric research and tertiary care.

This summary does not do justice to the dimensions of Wright's narrative. With remarkable adroitness he captures multiple dimensions of the patient, parent, physician, nurse, and benefactor experience at Sick Kids, and these are not just tear-jerking, heart-warming stories. The hospital was often deeply troubled. Its early years saw a takeover of the institution by the dictatorial newspaper baron and philanthropist, John Ross Robertson. As the hospital's physical plant went through multiple configurations, working and living conditions and standards of care were often far from ideal. In the 1980s, the hospital was wracked by an incredible scandal when it was believed that one or more nurses had been serially murdering babies with over-doses of digoxin. In the 1990s, researchers at the institution managed to discredit themselves and their calling by behaving like characters in a bad television drama. And the profound philanthropic impulse that makes children's hospitals "the sweetest of all charities" did not prove immune to fads, foibles, and failures.

Wright manages to end his book leaving most readers convinced that they now understand the history of a hospital in which many wonderful acts of healing and love have taken place, even as adversity has sometimes taken a toll. The Hospital for Sick Children can be very proud of itself and very proud of the history it has commissioned. Better yet for medical and social historians, Wright has quietly shaped his narrative to stimulate lingering questions. Was the hospital's custodial ethos of the early twentieth century - effectively segregating children from their parents - overdone? Did Sick Kids survive so much adversity because it had, and worked hard to preserve, a de facto monopoly on children's hospital care in a very large metropolis? Can fundraisers always be trusted to root their appeals in real needs and maintain appropriate restraint? The day I wrote this review, we had a flyer in our morning paper promoting Sick Kids' glitzy annual lottery, an event that seems over the top and exploitive. Do good ends justify tacky means?

Michael Bliss, Emeritus
University of Toronto

David WrightAbout David Wright

David Wright is Professor of History, McGill University, Montreal, Canada.  He is an historian by training, having graduated from McGill and the University of Oxford.  As a post-doctoral research fellow, he specialized in the history of medicine at Oxford’s Wellcome Unit, where he began to research the history of mental disability in the nineteenth century.  After three years as Wellcome Lecturer at the University of Nottingham, Professor Wright returned to Canada to take up the Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine at McMaster University, where he was cross-appointed to the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences. In 2011, he returned to McGill University as Canada Research Chair in the History of Health Policy at the Institute for Health and Social Policy (cross-appointed to History).

Professor Wright is the author and co-editor of ten books and three-dozen peer-reviewed articles and chapters, primarily on the history of disability, the history of children’s hospitals, and transnational themes in the history of medicine. He is currently completing a book (with Sasha Mullally) on the immigration of foreign-trained doctors to Canada at the time of the establishment of universal health insurance. 

This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.