Sanitation, public hygiene, and the fight against disease: 1882 to 1921 - Page Banner

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Letter Ontario’s Board of Health was first established in 1882. In 1884, the province’s first medical officer of health started his job. By 1886, 400 boards of health were in operation throughout the province, in communities large and small. The promotion of healthy living in Ontario had begun.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, governments were busy building and maintaining hospitals, cleaning up the urban environment, and making the water supply safe. Private organizations, such as benevolent societies and church groups, provided relief to the sick and did their best to control outbreaks of disease.

Photo: Disinfecting railway cars for foot and mouth disease, 1908

Click to see a larger image (60K)
Disinfecting railway cars for foot
and mouth disease, 1908
John Boyd fonds
Reference Code: C 7-3-1672
Archives of Ontario, I0003363

Photo: The sale of "unsanitary" ice cream, [ca. 1905]

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The sale of “unsanitary” ice cream, [ca. 1905]
Public Health Nursing Branch
Reference Code: RG 10-30-2, 3.02.5
Archives of Ontario, I0005187

Their work was part of the Victorian notion of social reform that flourished in Canada between 1880 and 1920: the belief that by promoting social causes-temperance, protection of children, improved working conditions, better schooling and medical care-traditional Christian values were being advanced.

The promotion of good health, to many reformers, pointed the way toward social progress and the advancement of society.

Cartoon: "M. H. O Hastings: I had no idea you needed cleaning up so badly"

“M. H. O Hastings: I had no idea you needed cleaning up so badly”. A caricature
of Charles Hastings, Toronto’s Medical Health Officer, and commentary
on his attempts to make Toronto cleaner and healthier, [ca. 1910-14]
Newton McConnell fonds
Reference Code: 301, 61
Archives of Ontario, I0006074

But by the 1900s, major outbreaks of diseases such as typhoid, cholera, and smallpox had overwhelmed the private system of care and the reformers’ efforts. Governments of all levels had to step in.

In Ontario, the Provincial Board of Health took the lead. Soon, through pamphlets, lectures, bulletins, and regular visits from public health inspectors, Ontarians learned how to prevent disease and live healthier lives.

This new emphasis on prevention and education followed on the heels of the bacteriological revolution of the 1880s, as science began to uncover the mystery of what caused disease. Vaccines were discovered around the world - the first smallpox vaccine in Ontario was produced in 1886.

Photo: A log building at a work camp, with a “Smallpox here” sign affixed to it, [between 1900 and 1920]

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A log building at a work camp, with a “Smallpox here” sign affixed to it, [between 1900 and 1920]
Porcupine area photograph collection.
Reference Code: C 320-1-0-2-5
Archives of Ontario, I0022414

Poster: Influenza poster, 1918

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Influenza poster, 1918
Secretary of the Board of Health and Chief
Medical Officer of Health subject files
Reference Code: RG 62-4-9-450a.1
Archives of Ontario

The importance of clean water, pasteurized milk, and sanitary food practices was also now understood. By the early 1900s, most cities and towns in Ontario had by-laws to regulate the inspection of meat and milk, and inspectors to enforce those laws. Toronto, for example, instituted a city-wide milk campaign in 1921, to alert the public to the dangers of unpasteurized milk.

Photo: Nurses giving out free milk and weighing a child at a booth, T. Eaton Co. store, as part of the Toronto Milk Campaign, 1921

Nurses giving out free milk and weighing a child at a booth, T. Eaton Co. store, as part of the Toronto Milk Campaign, 1921
Public Health Nursing Branch
Reference Code: RG 10-30-2, 1.8.3
Archives of Ontario, I0005259

Photo: Class of boys drinking milk, Toronto milk campaign, 1921

Class of boys drinking milk, Toronto milk campaign, 1921
Public Health Nursing Branch
Reference Code: RG 10-30-2, 1.8.15
Archives of Ontario, I0005262

Toronto’s water system was first chlorinated in 1910, and other municipalities quickly followed that city’s lead. And public health workers of all kinds-doctors, nurses, and building and food inspectors-became more organized and professionalized.

Photo: The Honourable Manning Doherty milking a cow in front of the Ontario Legislature, Toronto milk campaign, 1921

The Honourable Manning Doherty milking a cow in front of the
Ontario Legislature, Toronto milk campaign, 1921
Public Health Nursing Branch
Reference Code: RG 10-30-2, 1.8.2
Archives of Ontario, I0005265

 

Thus, by 1900, the real beginnings of health education-public hygiene, as it was called-had taken root in Ontario.

The gospel of public hygiene spread throughout the province. Medical inspection of public schools began after 1908, so that children could get the medical care and preventive education they needed. Centralized disease reporting in the province helped health workers and governments target those communities most in need. And the establishment of various health promotion agencies-such as the Canadian Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis, formed in 1900-meant that the government could work with a wide array of health professionals to educate Ontarians about how to prevent and treat many diseases.

Photo: Children being measured at the school clinic, [ca. 1905]

Children being measured at the school clinic, [ca. 1905]
Public Health Nursing Branch
Reference Code: RG 10-30-2, 3.03.2
Archives of Ontario, I0005191

By the 1920s, divisions of Preventable Diseases, Public Health Education, Laboratories, Sanitary Engineering, Industrial Hygiene, and Material and Child Hygiene and Public Health Nursing were all established by the provincial government. And, in 1921, the Ontario Division of Public Health Education was formed, marking the start of a new era in health education.


Home | Next
Sanitation, public hygiene, and the fight against disease: 1882 to 1921
Public health nurses: bringing health home
Living longer, living healthier: health education in the curative age, 1921 to 1947
Mass marketing and social change: the postwar era | Health promotion in the modern era: 1974 and beyond
The promotion of healthy living in Ontario: timeline