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Vintage Victoria Hospital

Victoria Hospital is one of the large teaching hospitals in London Ontario, a city with a long tradition of medical research and practice. Both Victoria Hospital and University Hospital are partnered with Western University, and together form the London Health Sciences Centre. As a collective unit, the London Health Sciences Centre acts as the Lead Trauma Centre for the region of Southwestern Ontario. On its own, however, Victoria Hospital has a long and proud history, and a reputation for cutting edge research into medicines and surgical techniques.

Early Victorian Medicine

Like all of the history of Southwestern Ontario, the history of Victoria Hospital begins in the crude, practical necessity of settler life in the days when Colonel Talbot was still doling out parcels of land to those coming over from the old world. At its earliest inception, the hospital was actually a log cabin, hastily constructed on the grounds of the old military barracks in Victoria Park in 1838. While this rough-and-ready construction managed to keep people alive – barely – as the city grew from a pioneer settlement of breweries and markets for farm goods to a more mature city it became obvious that the cabin hospital was woefully unsuited to meet its needs. In addition, beginning in 1860, the Province of Ontario began offering municipalities money to build hospitals. To this end, the city built a new hospital, London General Hospital, at a site on what is now South Street in 1875. When the London General Hospital opened, the London Free Press said that,

“The site, on South Street between Colborne and Waterloo Streets, which had long been set aside for hospital purposes, is in every aspect a desirable one. It is free from nuisances of every kind; the land is sufficiently elevated to ensure good surface and subsoil drainage; an abundant supply of pure fresh water can be obtained by digging deep enough; and the extent of the lot, some four acres, is sufficiently isolated to give the grounds the necessary exposure to currents of air.”

The South Street neighbourhood where London General Hospital was built has been described as both working class and mostly Afro-Canadian; the area was where a number of former slaves had settled after escaping the American South on the Underground Railroad. The neighbourhood was mostly row houses and cabins that housed a diverse collective of people, including subsistence dairy farmers, proto-taxi drivers, craftsmen, machinists, and bakers. The actual site of the hospital was largely land belonging to a lawyer named James Daniell, who had rented it out to the Winder family as a farming lot to grow oats for race horses.

Between the time in which the city had purchased the land in 1866 and the hospital’s eventual construction in 1875 a cholera epidemic broke out in the South Street neighbourhood that required the city to build an emergency temporary hospital. It was a shanty type building with wooden tables nailed to the wall and huge box stoves to burn wood in to keep warm.

The London General Hospital

London General Hospital

Once built, the London General Hospital took advantage of the growing urban center, including the growth of the new university in the city, to expand and develop their operations. In 1882 a white frame cottage was opened on St. James Street by the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Western Ontario, built to house student doctors learning at the new hospital. Five years later there were 60 student doctors, which meant that a whole new building had to be erected at Waterloo and York Streets. That faculty would later be moved to the Western University campus in 1965. The year after the St. James Street teaching facility opened another training program opened; this was the London General Training School for Nurses, which began its 1883 opening year with three nursing students.

The distinct feature on this original modern London hospital was the Mansard roof, which included a central tower with its own distinctive features – paired windows and an ornamental top. The top floor, underneath the Mansard roof, was divided into three wards, devoted to free female patients. Another detached ward catered mainly to men who were incapable of paying for treatment. In fact, the London General Hospital spent much of its time treating the old, poor, and chronically ill. While eight rooms were set aside specifically to quickly serve paying customers, by the early 1890s the province was unhappy with the largely charitable work of the hospital and insisted that the city fund a facility that would serve more than “the prostitute, the pauper, or the imbecile,” as a local doctor told the city council in particularly colourful fashion in 1889. By 1897 the hospital was admitting 842 patients and matters were rapidly coming to a head.

Victoria Hospital

Victoria Hospital

In that same year, 1897, the British Empire, spanning the Commonwealth, celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. In the latter half of 1896, Queen Victoria had become the longest-reigning monarch in the history of the Empire; celebrations were put off until the following year so as to coincide with the Jubilee, which marked her 60th year as Queen and Empress. The Jubilee was made a festival across the entire Empire, decreed by Her Majesty’s Government. The request of the Queen was that all memorials made in her name across the United Kingdom and its colonies were to have something to do with helping the plight of the sick and the suffering. Seizing upon the idea, the city of London proposed to either add on to the London General Hospital or to build an entirely new hospital.

Between 1897 and 1898 the city, the doctors at the existing hospital, and local interest groups debated which memorial to Queen Victoria they should embark on. In 1898 the city of London decided to build a new hospital at the cost of $70,000; it would have 140 beds and provide facilities for improved treatment of disease, maternity, convalescence, and especially for children. Special emphasis was also placed upon improving the treatment facilities for paying customers, which many felt London General Hospital sorely lacked. This was also the impetus behind debating the location of the hospital. The South Street location was handy for the city’s working-class population and for the long-term care needs of the city’s poor and elderly, but these features also kept the better-off part of the London population from feeling free to access health care.

In the end it was decided that keeping the hospital at the South Street location would be the best course of action. On November 16th, 1899, the newly expanded hospital opened under the Jubilee-memorial name of Victoria Hospital. A crowd of 15,000 London citizens crammed onto South Street to celebrate the opening of the hospital; crowds were admitted to the hospital grounds and according to the London Advertiser they “thronged the corridors and swarmed through the rooms.” While some resented keeping the hospital at its South Street location, the Hospital Trust that made the ultimate decisions for the facility stated that

“It should be the first consideration of the Council to provide accommodation for such as cannot otherwise obtain it, and if, after that is accomplished, they feel that it is within their power to provide the private wards for paying patients, it is very desirable to do so.”

The expanded and renamed hospital was designed by the firm of McBride and Farncombe, who beat out four other local architects to win the contract. The design was based around the idea of the hospital as a series of pavilions: several small brick buildings, as opposed to the one large building that had comprised the London General Hospital. Interestingly this had been an original design plan for the London General Hospital; Dr. Charles Moore, City Physician during the initial push to move beyond the old log cabin days of London medicine, had undertaken a tour of hospitals in the United States in order to best gauge what London needed for their new facility. Dr. Moore’s suggestion had been to undertake the very pavilion style of institution that eventually became incorporated in Victoria Hospital.

The pavilion style of hospital building had been recently popularized by the time Victoria Hospital was being planned. The idea of the pavilion as the best way to build a hospital had come from experiences with the redesign of the Hotel Dieu in Paris, military hospitals in the European wars of the 19th Century, and the journals of famed nurse Florence Nightingale. The latter was especially important, as Nightingale’s theories on miasma, decay, and the ability of a hospital to avoid either through clean facilities had achieved strong scientific backing with the rise of germ theory as the source of most human sickness. To this end, hospitals erected in the pavilion style, including Victoria Hospital, were built with wards in long buildings that were spread out to prevent contagion and cross-contamination. The London General Hospital in this case was treated as one of the buildings within the pavilion system, incorporating the old building into the new design.

Administration of the hospital was housed in the central building, which also housed a reception hall, a dispensary, and a kitchen. Long hallways connected the central administration building to the other wards, which included spaces for children, the poor, paying customers, and, in the old General Hospital, those afflicted with tuberculosis. Sun rooms were built into the ends of the hallways at the south end, with views of the Thames River and the rolling farm fields that spread out to the south of the city. In addition to natural sunlight, the hospital was equipped with both electric light and steam heating.

The addition of facilities to treat tuberculosis came a bit later than the others. The rise of tuberculosis in the London area around 1900 spurred the Province of Ontario into providing money to municipalities to combat the scourge. London took the money and planned to built a sanitorium to house patients, but it wasn’t until 1906 that space in the old General Hospital was allocated. Even then there wasn’t enough space for the rising number of patients; the plight of the afflicted attracted newspaper attention and the city looked to figure out a better way of treating them. Eventually a private location was established, near the Thames River at the edge of the village of Byron, Ontario. By 1910 all but the worst cases were transferred to the new Queen Alexandra Sanitorium, leaving the incurable to get hospice care at Victoria Hospital.

Victoria Hospital Part II

Victoria Hospital

After the Second World War, continued growth of the city of London meant that it was time to think once again about expanding the operations of Victoria Hospital. This time, however, the idea of moving the facility to a better location took on greater weight. A military hospital, Westminster Hospital, had originally opened in 1918 to serve the mental health needs of veterans returning from the First World War; this expanded to physical needs, including surgical procedures, for veterans from 1929 onward. In 1977 the site, comprising some 80 acres of land with facilities, was purchased by the Victoria Hospital Corporation; the site was renamed the Victoria Hospital Westminster Campus. In 2005 the bulk of the patients and staff at the South Street location of Victoria Hospital were transferred to the Westminster location, with the remainder to be moved over the following years. This was completed by 2013 and the South Street location of Victoria Hospital was permanently closed. Of the buildings that comprised the old Victoria Hospital, only the Colborne building and the War Memorial Children’s Hospital (as well as a few minor auxiliary buildings) remain today. The Colborne rebuilding is slated to be repurposed as a residential development, with two residential towers, garden suites, reflecting pools, villas, and seating.

While the old Children’s Hospital is still looking for new development opportunities, it bears mentioning that a medical innovation took place there. Like a number of medical breakthroughs, Canada developed a new cancer-fighting technique in 1951 called the “cobalt bomb” which first debuted in Victoria Hospital. The technique involved driving a powerful force of radioactive material (cobalt) deep into the body to destroy cancerous cells; the cobalt-60 that was used was the real revolution of the procedure. Cobalt-60 is a radioactive isotope that is a uniquely Canadian isotope that was until 2018 manufactured at the Chalk River Laboratories facility in Chalk River, Ontario. The technique has since been replaced by other radiation therapy techniques but the survival rate of previously lethal cancers is owed primarily to the medical pioneering established at Victoria Hospital.

Victoria Hospital Today

In 1995 Victoria Hospital merged with University Hospital, which had been established next to Western University in 1972. Together they formed the London Health Sciences Centre, which is what it remains today regardless of how healthcare has been changed administratively in Ontario. It is today still a home of cutting-edge medical research and treatment techniques. In the past decade alone, it has pioneered treatment for less invasive heart surgery, throat surgery for cancer, careful removal of liver cancer, bone conduction implants to help people hear, and robotic colorectal repair. In the course of a year Victoria Hospital experiences over 165,000 emergency room visits and admits over 52,000 for long-term stays; it’s a busy, thoroughly modern hospital that fits in perfectly with London’s forward-looking vision of growth and technical innovation.