This coming Friday, June 22, 2012, will mark the 180th anniversary of the start of Toronto’s first ambulance service.
The City of Toronto was incorporated on March 6, 1834 and had a population of 10,000 residents, which included fifteen doctors. Prior to 1834, Toronto was known as the Town of York, which was founded by the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe in 1793.
In 1829 “The York General Hospital” opened at King and John St. to serve the deserving poor as most of the well to do population, were cared for in their homes. Prior to this the only hospital in York was a military hospital located in the Garrison Creek Ravine (Fort York area).
The major problem facing this young town was the severe shortage of money to provide public services and infrastructure. Garbage was piling up, dead carcasses of animals remained in the roadways, and puddles oozed stench, filth and deadly diseases. There were no sewers, and except for a couple of common pumps, the municipal water supply was questionable. The roads were muddy and barely passable, thus the name “Muddy York.”
The only known good source of water was from a spring located at Davenport Hill and Spadina Ave., and even though the harbour was severely polluted, most people obtained their water from Lake Ontario.
These conditions along with new arrivals suffering from illnesses, led to an outbreak of cholera. To care for the new immigrants, the newly formed York Board of Health soon faced the task of dealing with a deadly epidemic.
The Board nominated unpaid “Health Wardens” in each ward, and directed them to search for the sick and to transport by their own means to the hospital. The wardens were poor to begin with, and had no means to deal with the great numbers of sick people.
On Friday June 22, 1832, the York Board of Health met and following the advice from the garrison physician, issued the following resolution:
- The Secretary be authorized immediately to apply to the Magistrates for funds to purchase and fit up a wagon offered by Mr. Culverwell for removing sick patients to the hospital and that it be stationed at or near the court house with a horse and driver.
- That a proper carriage to be stationed as near a possible to the place where ships coming into the Port are ordered to come to, for a like purpose to be at the disposal of the health officer at all hours.
- That a notice be published acquainting the inhabitants that means are provided at the court house for at once conveying patients to the cholera hospital free of charge.
The Board also recommended in their daily meeting on June 29, 1832, “That ‘Carters’ [the paramedics of 1832] employed to convey the bodies to the graves and to the hospital be sworn in as special constables, and that a relief of constables be provided for every four hours”. The work load that cholera placed on these men was so demanding that they needed this regular relief. We may never know how many carters were infected during this time.
To assist with gathering proper data, John Blevins, the first driver of the cholera ambulance, was invited to the July 19th, 1832 Board meeting where he relayed that more bodies had indeed been picked up in the streets and left at the dead body portion of the Hospital. Further reports indicate that during the summer of 1832 there were 535 cases of cholera resulting in 205 deaths.
The June 22, 1832 diaries of James Leslie reported the following observations of that day:
“This morning the cholera cart passed our door in the morning to convey some person to their long home, and again as we came out of meeting at noon, it was receiving the body of a man who had died in the house opposite. How many have been today I know not.”
The following year, John Blevins’ wife is listed as a widow. We can only suspect that John may have fallen ill to the same disease that affected so many that he was hired to care for.
This coming Friday June 22, 2012, take a moment from your busy schedule to remember our colleagues who have led the way and in some cases lost their lives caring for the citizens of Toronto and making our profession what it is today.This history was researched and compiled by Bruce Newton. Drawings by W. White. Copyright © 2012 W. White and Toronto EMS.