WCH CONNECTJuly 8, 2019

From WCH Archives: The hospital’s first patient

  • July 8, 2019
  • BY Heather Gardiner

One of the most frequently asked questions Women’s College Hospital’s (WCH) archives receives is “who was WCH’s first patient?”

Without the original patient ledger book, it can’t be answered with 100 per cent certainty, but the numerous written first and second-hand accounts held by the archives all point to one individual—a six-year-old boy named Jimmy.

According to a letter written by Dr. Laura Hamilton, Jimmy was a “gentle, affectionate, supersensitive [boy], with dark eyes and slightly curling hair.” Jimmy’s parents immigrated to Canada from England just before his birth. His father was a former soldier and described at the time as a “soaker”—a term used during that time to describe a person suffering from alcohol addiction. As for Jimmy’s mother, it was said that she and Jimmy held a special bond. He had never been separated from her for any length of time. The family lived in a two-room house on St. David Street in Toronto.

Jimmy and his family frequently visited the Dispensary, a walk-in clinic that was founded in 1898 to provide clinical experience to the women medical students who attended the Ontario Medical College for Women. The clinic was used primarily by lower to middle class women and their families. Female medical residents, under the supervision of women doctors, provided medical advice for free, as well as other services, such as prenatal care, for a nominal fee. Patients of the Dispensary were guaranteed to be seen by a woman doctor—a novelty at the time—and Jimmy was seen by Dr. Laura Hamilton.

Jimmy was not a healthy child. In the fall of 1911, Dr. Hamilton referred Jimmy to Sick Children’s Hospital. There, he underwent operations for adenoids and tonsils, as well as for a hernia. Although the operations were successful, he was slow to recover. Described as nervous and frail before the operations, Jimmy’s condition continued to deteriorate after the surgeries. At one point Jimmy was moved to the Lakeside Home for Little Children, a branch of the Hospital for Sick Children located on Toronto Island, for recovery.

At the insistence of Jimmy’s mother, Dr. Hamilton went to visit Jimmy on the island. She was told that Jimmy barely ate, he did not sleep well and he refused to speak, except for the occasional cry for his “mamma.”

Returning to the city, Dr. Hamilton had an idea. The Dispensary had just been relocated to the main floor of a small house at 18 Seaton Street. Its upper level was in the process of being converted into a 7-bed inpatient hospital. The new hospital was to be known as Women’s College Hospital and Dispensary.

Dr. Hamilton approached Dr. Jennie Gray, a medical staff member of the new hospital, about her six-year-old patient. Dr. Gray agreed to admit Jimmy to the hospital but also informed her that the inpatient rooms were yet to be completed.

With the permission of the hospital’s board and with the help of Dr. Hamilton’s cousin, one of the patient rooms was fully furnished by noon the next day.

Jimmy was transferred to Women’s College Hospital and became the hospital’s first patient. He was accompanied by his mother, who acted as his nurse and cook. He was diagnosed by Dr. Gray with a “nervous fever” and treated with a sedative. After a good night sleep with his mother at his bedside and a big breakfast, Dr. Gray noted that Jimmy “was on the way to recovery.”

Some are surprised to learn that the first patient of Women’s College Hospital was a young boy accompanied by his mother. But knowing the history of the hospital, this speaks to Women’s College Hospital’s unwavering commitment to the health and welfare of women and their families—a commitment that began in 1911 and continues to this day.

Women’s College Hospital and Dispensary 1911-1915

Women’s College Hospital and Dispensary 1911-1915

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