Reflecting on the healthcare providers’ strength of character and human spirit that compelled them to help Irish migrants gives us insight into the current pandemic

Dr. George Robert Grasett Park, named in honour of the doctor who gave his life treating Irish migrants with typhus, will stand at Adelaide Street West and Widmer, where many Irish arriving in Toronto were treated or died.
KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/The Globe and Mail
Robert Kearns is chair and founder of the Ireland Park Foundation.
On this day in 1847 July 16 Dr. George Robert Grasett, chief attending surgeon at the Toronto Emigrant Hospital, died. He was appointed to his position on June 18, volunteering to treat arriving Irish migrants suffering from typhus. In less than a month, he succumbed to the very disease he had sought to treat.
On June 8, the first 1,100 Irish famine migrants arrived in Toronto, onboard the steamer The Toronto. They were fleeing the Great Irish Famine, which was responsible for the greatest loss of life in Europe since the Black Death. The population of Ireland shrank from just over eight million in 1841 to around 5.5 million in 1861.
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During the 1847 year of sorrow, 98,500 Irish men, women and children set out for Canada, a country of two million people, on sailing ships fitted out for the transatlantic lumber trade. The cramped and unhygienic conditions on board these ships vectored the rapid spread of typhus, for which there was no known cure. The loss of life at sea amounted to about 20 per cent. They are buried in communal graves in Quebec and Ontario that are the largest known in the Americas.
In 1847, Torontos population was just 20,000. By the fall of that year, around 38,565 Irish Famine migrants had landed on Torontos waterfront. This was a public-health emergency and economic crisis of immense proportions.
Grasett was just one of those health care providers. Others included Dr. Joseph Hamilton, Bishop Michael Power, nurses Susan Bailey, Anne Slocumb, Sarah Jane Sherwood, Sarah Duggan and Catherine Doherty. Hospital orderlies John McNabb, Richard Jones, William Harrison and triage officer, Edward McElderry.
By the end of 1847, around 1,186 men, women and children were dead from typhus in Toronto.
Just prior to the arrival of the Irish, Power, Torontos first Catholic bishop, led an effort with city authorities in May, 1847, calling for the construction of an Emigrant Hospital, which included a proposed addition to the Toronto Hospital. The Toronto Board of Health issued instructions for the immediate expansion of the Emigrant Hospitals facilities, including the construction of fever sheds. An observer noted that these sheds occupied almost the whole of the vacant land outside the hospital, which by August accommodated more than 800 patients. With sheds and wards over capacity, the Board of Health ordered the conversion of the hospitals dining rooms into medical wards for health care providers and patients.
Grasett, in addition to his own family medical practice, also volunteered with a number of Toronto-based charitable organizations that aided and provided medical assistance to the poor and the sick. He was a compassionate man who cared deeply about helping the less fortunate. His obituary refers to his devotion to the amelioration of the sufferings of his fellow men, irrespective of hire or reward.
Grasett and his fellow health care providers played a critical role during a period of great transition and recovery for Toronto. The essential medical and humanitarian services they provided to the Irish migrants, many of whom are the ancestors of modern-day Canadians, laid the foundation for the Canada we know today. These individuals established a legacy of caring that defines us as Canadians. Sadly, within little more than a year after their deaths, their ultimate sacrifice was forgotten.
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Ten years ago, work began to restore their names to memory. This summer, Ireland Park Foundation had planned to officially open Dr. George Robert Grasett Park at the southeast corner of Adelaide Street West and Widmer Street, on the same plot of land as Torontos first brick hospital. This park will honour Grasett and the medical professionals who gave their lives to care for the thousands of arriving migrants. COVID-19 has delayed the opening of the park until summer of 2021, but today, we are marking the occasion and taking inspiration from Grasetts service at the Emigrant Hospital.
Despite immense technological advances, we are once again fighting a pandemic for which there is no cure. Just as in 1847, front-line workers of every faith and background are risking their health, and the health of their families, to help the vulnerable.
Reflecting on the same strength of character and human spirit that compelled health care providers to sacrifice themselves to enable thousands of Irish migrants to recover and become contributors to our country, reminds us that together, we too will survive this pandemic.
Ireland Park Foundation hopes that visitors to Dr. George Robert Grasett Park will learn from the sacrifices of these individuals, not just as a retelling of history, but as a demonstration of the foundations of the best of humanity in a park honouring the courage of all front-line heroes everywhere.
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