Birth of a local living
history collection / 5

The Atwater Library and Montreal Island seniors construct a living a history collection

By Wanda Potrykus

Children’s stories – Part 3

Every past used to be a future once upon a time.

Munia Khan

Once upon a time… from 1909 to 1956, a little hospital grew and grew

From 1909 to 1950, the CMH was able to meet the demand for more beds and services by acquiring other hospitals and adjacent buildings, as well as constructing various additions on Cedar Avenue. It also opened a number of outpatient departments, one of which was in Little Burgundy on St-Antoine in the former Montreal Children’s Hospital location, which was far easier for most ambulatory patients and caregivers to get to than the Cedar Avenue site that was not well served by public transport.

However, by the 1950s, its reputation firmly established, the hospital was stretched to capacity and was already exploring different growth options that included rebuilding where it was, or moving to another location in its entirety. Plans were drawn up for both scenarios, however, this second option became more of a firm possibility when the Montreal General Hospital (MGH), which was also expanding at a new site on land south of Cedar at the same time, suggested the CMH could take over the site of its Western General annex on 2300 Tupper. After much discussion, evaluation, and new construction this option eventually came to pass in 1956.

‘…The Children’s Memorial Hospital does not have the same meaning half a century after the death of Her Majesty Queen Victoria… a new name ‘The Montreal Children’s Hospital’ would be more realistic.’

The Montreal Children’s Hospital: Years of Growth by Jesse Boyd Scriver, 1979

At the same time, the decision was made to change its name from The Children’s Memorial Hospital (CMH) to The Montreal Children’s Hospital (MCH); although to placate those who felt the former name was the one with worldwide recognition, it was agreed that for several years afterwards its official name would also be accompanied by the former one in brackets on the official hospital stationery, reports and presentations.

What the un-named board member, who uttered those words, had “forgotten” or perhaps never knew, was that there had been another hospital named the Montreal Children’s Hospital (aka the Vipond Children’s Hospital – opened in 1920) and which had been absorbed into the CMH in 1940. So, in some ways, it wasn’t so much a “new” name as the revival of one that already had a previous history in the community.

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L’Hôpital St-Justine on de l’Lorimier, 1908 to 1914 Image: CHU Sainte-Justine

Meanwhile, in May 1914, St Justine’s, which had already moved twice in its short history from its first tiny St Denis Street location to a more spacious home at 820 de Lorimier, relocated once again to a much larger purpose-built hospital at 1879 St-Denis Street, where it was able to stay until 1957, when it too moved to an even grander, more modern complex at 3175 Côte Ste. Catherine road, where it remains today. However, unlike the MCH, it has been able to continue to refurbish, rebuild and upgrade its facilities on that site, whereas the MCH has had to undergo its third complete move, this time to the Glen site on Decarie in NDG, which occurred in 2015.

Thus, it was only at the commencement of the 20th century in Montreal that paediatric medicine as a specialty care area really began to develop in our city but improvement and innovation in the field was constant, especially after World War II, when care became more individualized with the provision of medication, equipment, treatment and expertise individually tailored, where feasible, to each child.

Innovations and medical firsts in paediatric care to 2005 at the Children’s

The reputation of the newly renamed Montreal Children’s Hospital (MCH) grew exponentially as the years passed. However, under both of its names it was always at the leading edge of paediatric care as evidenced by some of its noteworthy “firsts”. For instance, in 1926 during its initial incarnation as the Children’s Memorial, noticing the link between the home environment and children’s health, it became the first hospital in Canada to create a Social Services department to support the family unit.

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Physiotherapy dept, Children’s Memorial Hospital on Cedar Avenue – Image: MCH Foundation

In 1931, it pioneered an artificial “lumber lung” design for polio patients, which was constructed out of wood by the hospital carpenter, Tom Wright, following plans drawn up by Dr Howard Mitchell. The design was sent onto William Morris in the UK and with modifications, it was used extensively there and in other parts of the world. This was followed in 1933 by the first hospital speech therapy clinic, and in 1938 it conducted the first operation in Canada to repair a congenital heart defect. It created the first medical genetics division in 1949 and the first children’s psychiatry department in 1950.

Children first

From its Tupper Street campus the Montreal Children’s has also been responsible for a number of medical and hospital firsts in Quebec and Canada, which have enhanced and saved the lives of countless children. These have included:

• The first open heart surgery on a child in Quebec (1957);
• The first hospital in Quebec with a Pediatric Burn Unit (1971);
• The first bone marrow transplant in a pediatric setting in Canada (1980);
• The first heart transplant to the youngest recipient ever in Canada (1988);
• The first hospital in Quebec to offer MRI scanning to children (1993);
• The first successful liver transplant to the youngest recipient ever in Canada (1985);
• The first baby in Quebec delivered using the EXIT (ex-utero intrapartum treatment) procedure (2000);
• The first operation in Canada to insert a mechanical heart device (Berlin heart) as a bridge to a transplant on the youngest patient ever in North America (2002);
• The first hospital in the world to use Botox to help a newborn who was drowning in his own saliva (2005).


Multilingual and multicultural – serving Quebec children – in their languages

Fully bilingual with a multicultural vision, the Montreal Children’s has always been proud of its ability to serve an increasingly diverse Quebec community. In 1985, it was the first hospital in Canada to set up a hospital-wide multiculturalism program.

Listening to the radio in their own language <br /> Public Domain image

Listening to the radio in their own language
Public Domain image

Currently, 40% of its patients are francophone, 40% Anglophone, 20% allophone. It also provides services in 43 languages to ensure excellent communication and the highest quality care.

In 2003, as part of bringing improved healthcare services into the 21st century, the Quebec Ministry of Health and Social Services (MSSS) created the Réseau Universitaire Intégré de Santé (RUIS), of which the MCH plays a vital part; meaning it is responsible for providing highly specialized care to 25% of Quebec children in an area totalling 63% of the province’s land mass; from the Ontario border to the Western half of Montreal and north to James Bay and Nunavut.

Once upon a time in 1925… on Mount Royal, a Mountain Shrine was inaugurated

The year 1925 saw yet another Montreal first in the specialized care of children with the arrival of what is still the only Shrine hospital in Canada – the Montreal Shriners Hospital for Children – which was opened that year on Cedar Avenue, not far from the Children’s Memorial location and where it would stay for the next 90 years. It subsequently developed an international reputation in research and teaching as well as becoming a model for collaboration with other paediatric care centres and Shrine Hospitals. In the 1920s in North America, polio was reaching epidemic proportions and only families of means had ready access to specialized doctors, leaving thousands of children at risk without health care. Up stepped the Shriners… those men in red hats (fezzes) and members of a fraternal organization after which their hospitals are named.

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Shriner Hospital for Children on Cedar Avenue, 1925-2015 – Image: SHCQ

Now recognized as one of the world’s greatest philanthropies, the Shriner Hospitals for Children have evolved into an international hospital system where all children receive care, irregardless of a family’s ability to pay. Montreal became a world leader in treating brittle bone disease (osteogenegis imperfecta), cerebral palsy, chest wall deformities, cleft-lip and plate, club feet, scoliosis, spina bifida, spinal cord injuries and many other complex, rare bone or burn conditions. In September 2015, it moved to a more spacious, 45 bed state-of-the-art building on the new Glen campus of the MUHC (McGill University Hospital Centre) leaving its cosy Mount Royal campus to an, as yet, unknown fate.

‘If wishes were horses… poor men would ride.’

Proverbs in Scots, James Carmichael, 1628

Personally, I’d like to see the elegant Spanish style building become a centre of research into kidney diseases and care methods including dietary care, as well as a kidney dialysis centre for both children and adults, as the MUHC no longer operates an outpatient dialysis service in the downtown area since the Royal Victoria’s was shuttered. This has forced centre-city residents to fight Highway 20 by car (if they have someone to drive), by bus (if they don’t) and by taxi (if they can afford it) so as to arrive in time at the Lachine General Hospital for their twice-weekly treatments and it is sorely missed by those who need it, plus it adds extra hours to an already lengthy and exhausting process for those who need it to stay alive.

Either that or a palliative care centre, once again to provide this much-needed service for central Montreal island residents. But that’s my personal wish list and it’s probably not going to happen, but one can always dream, until the building gets sold, of course, and reality sets in.

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2015 – New Montreal Shriners Hospital for Children on Decarie, NDG – Image: SHCQ

Once upon a time from 1957 to 2018… at the Montreal Childrens

“The MCH was a very special place for me as a kid in the 60s – it would be the place that I went to when sick or needed stitches as I lived not too far away – my uncle Bob Symmers was the ambulance driver there for about 35 years – I no longer live in Mtl – but that hospital is a very special place to me!”
Ernest Schmidt, June 9, 2015

A hospital is only as good as its caregivers: the doctors and nurses, the specialists, the psychologists, the pharmacists, the physio and other therapists, the technicians, the radiologists, the social workers, the nurses’ aides and orderlies, and everyone else, right down the long list of all those required to keep a hospital functioning, including, of course, the administrators, secretaries, telephonists and admitting clerks, as well as the EMTs, the ambulance drivers, the stretcher bearers, the cooks, the service people, the cleaners, the janitors and maintenance people, and, of course, the volunteers.

“In May of 1973, I was admitted to the MCH with viral meningitis. Shortly thereafter, I slipped into a coma, which lasted close to a month. When I regained consciousness, I couldn’t walk or talk, but, through the excellent care of the MCH, and a lot of persistence, I learned to do both again. I was finally discharged from the hospital in late July of the same year. Thank you Montreal Children’s Hospital for saving my life! Congratulations on your new facilities!”
Ian Bain, June 9, 2015

Too much of a good thing

‘Though I don’t have fond memories of the Montreal Children’s Hospital, I do recognize and appreciate the supreme efforts made on behalf of our child, but I just wish she had been born 50 years later.’

Pat Pang, April 8, 2018

Of course, not everyone’s experience of the MCH, and indeed any hospital, was tinged with positivity. Hospitals are stressful places at the best, and even more so, at the worst of times. Some parents and children have to spend many anxious days, nights, months and even years of doctors’ visits trying to work out what is wrong and how best to fix it (if at all possible) and often in not the most comfortable of surroundings.

“There were many wonderful Doctors who saw (our daughter) Darlyne and were curious about her uniqueness. Of course, those I remember are Dr Pekus, Dr Watters, Dr Boxer and many others… (but) those were not exactly The Good Old Days but we are all grateful for the thousands of children who were cared for, saved, mended and mentored. Hospitals are good things. The Children’s at Tupper is rightly remembered as a good thing, but we were there far too much. I have seen the new Children’s Hospital at the MUHC and all I can say is: ‘We’ve come a long way baby’.”
Patricia and Doug Pang, April 8, 2018

The ALCC Living History seniors’ group is interesting in recording more stories from those who worked and/or volunteered at the Montreal Children’s Hospital as well as at the other medical institutions in its area of focus. Hospitals such as the the Alexandra, the Verdun General, the Douglas, the Royal Edward/Montreal Chest Institute, the Royal Victoria, the Allan Memorial, the Montreal General, the Shriners, the Western General, the Women’s General (later the Herbert Reddy Memorial) and the Queen Elizabeth.

Stories from some of the people who did the caring

To date, the seniors have collected three stories from retired workers in the health industry but know there are many more out there. Snapshots of two of them are featured below and a complementary third snapshot of Dr Stephane Schwartz, a paediatric dentist and 40-year career veteran at the Gilman Dental Pavilion of the MCH, can be found in Birth of a Living History Collection – Part 2.

Dr Patricia Forbes – paediatrician, amateur curler, archivist

A quiet, gently spoken lady, but obviously one with great drive, determination and an iron will, the story of Pat Forbes is one of a young British medical doctor emigrating to Canada in 1960, soon after completing her studies in paediatrics in the UK, and hoping, as so many immigrants do, to find better opportunities than were available to her in the land of her birth.

A native of Sheffield, England, she had studied medicine in Manchester. After a one-year specialization in paediatrics she asked one of her professors about what he knew about opportunities in Canada.

‘Hospitals are stressful places at the best, and even more so, at the worst of times.’

“Well, both Toronto and Montreal have excellent children’s hospitals, so you won’t go wrong either way, but you’ll probably have a lot more fun in Montreal”, was the gist of his reply to her.

So, taking his advice, she applied for and was accepted into the resident programme at the then still “new” MCH campus at Tupper and Dorchester (now Rene-Levesque). Being single, her remuneration included her uniform as well as room and board in what had become the interns and residents’ home in the former Western Hospital nurses’ residence at the corner of Atwater and Dorchester, since a new and more commodious nurses home had been constructed further east in 1954 (A Wing) when the MCH had moved from its Cedar Avenue site.

Given a Category 1 heritage rating by Westmount, the former the nurses/residents’ building envelope (F Wing) cannot be destroyed. At the time of writing, it is just about the only building left somewhat intact on the site of MCH hospital, as all the others, apart from D Wing (which will be the last structure to be dismantled), have already crumbled into history.

For Pat, this is the hospital campus where she worked for her entire career in Canada since she retired before the move to the MCH’s new Glen site, and so she has mixed feelings about its total demise.

‘It appears from her tale that it is not easy to be an archivist and tough decisions need to be made.’

Pat Forbes, however, is a lot more than her working life as a paediatrician, although she shares several thoughts about that; however, what is evident is that even in retirement her life is still extremely fulfilling. Taking up golf and curling as her principal summer/winter retirement sporting activities, she fell in love with the game of curling. Joining the venerable Royal Montreal Curling Club  (RMCC), which is the oldest athletic club still in continuous operation in North America with a 200+ year history, she became its first (and to date only) female President, as well as the Club’s principal archivist.

Recuperating boxes of the club’s trophies, photographs and memorabilia from National Archives Canada, where they had been sent at one time when no one at the club had the inclination to undertake the work involved to catalogue it all, she and her team of volunteers, made the sometimes arduous and contentious decisions as to what to keep and what to sling. It appears from her tale that it is not easy to be an archivist and tough decisions need to be made. For more of Pat’s interesting life and times, do come by the Library to listen in and learn more.

Marty Fisher – Nurse, alternative therapist practitioner, citizen of the world

Vivacious, accomplished, with an ever-enquiring mind, Nurse Marty Fisher has used her chosen career to finance her love of travel. Born in Ontario, she chose to leave home in Hamilton to pursue her nursing studies at McGill University in Montreal in the 1960s. Living in both Lorne Crescent and then on Lorne Avenue, in the area known colloquially as the McGill Ghetto, due to the high density of students and young families and the (then) inexpensive rents that the shared apartments in the area east of University and west of Park Avenue attracted.

‘Vivacious, accomplished, with an ever-enquiring mind, Nurse Marty Fisher has used her chosen career to finance her love of travel.

Sadly that downtown enclave, has today, like so many others in city, fallen to gentrification and accommodations there are no longer cheap. Marty takes us on a journey through her life as a student nurse, who due to certain required courses, and being perhaps slightly older, also benefited at that point in time from privileges at the McGill David Thomson Graduate Students’ House at 3650 McTavish Street, allowing them a unique place to study and to socialize, one that was not usually available to the majority of undergraduate students.

We hear about life as a young nurse in the Royal Vic, the Montreal General and the Jewish General. She explains the stresses nurses are subjected to, both then and right up to present times, the long hours with extended shifts that create stressful working conditions. Trained as a surgical and then an ICU nurse, Marty is frank and open about her choice of career and it wasn’t all roses. Facing burnout, she retrained in alternative therapy techniques, shiatsu massage, reflexology and went into private practise for 12 years.

Always somewhat of a restless soul, with a yen to see the world, she worked and saved, using her nursing skills to finance her trips, and her career allowed her to take off on extensive travels, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia. Every time she ran out money, she came back and worked – contract nursing, agency nursing, private practice nursing. At one point, she married and moved to the US where she worked as a magazine editor and writer. When her marriage ended she moved back to Canada, but her peripatetic lifestyle continued.

‘… the stresses nurses are subjected to, both then and right up to present times, the long hours with extended shifts that create stressful working condition.’

Recognizing she needed a home base, she purchased a condo near the Lachine Canal not far from Charlevoix metro where she still lives today. At the time she bought the price was right, though now she says it’s an area that has also fallen to the perils of gentrification and the young and not-so-young can no longer afford to live there as the rents and housing prices have skyrocketed. Marty has much to share, including what it was like to live in Montreal as a young person from another province experiencing soldiers on the streets during the October Crisis of 1970. Come listen to Marty Fisher’s life and times living, loving and nursing in a Montreal that in some ways is eternal and in others, no longer exists.

Once upon a time… the stories of beloved, and not so loved, Montreal childcare institutions

“The story of the hospital’s years of growth is lovingly told by a doctor who worked with many of the people involved in its history. It is a tale of dedicated attention to children by devoted doctors and staff, of drama brought about by epidemics and tragedies, of hardships undergone during two world wars and a depression, and of financial crises and the community’s response to them.”
The Montreal Children’s Hospital: Years of Growth by Jesse Boyd Scriver, McGill-Queens University Press, 1979, Extract from the front cover flap

‘The story of the hospital’s years of growth is lovingly told by a doctor who worked with many of the people involved in its history.’

For those who would like to read more about the story of The Children’s Memorial aka The Montreal Children’s Hospital, a book entitled The Montreal Children’s Hospital: Years of Growth, is highly recommended. Published in 1979, by long time Westmount resident and 2009 Civic Honour Roll recipient, the late Dr Jesse Boyd Scriver, who was a noted paediatrician and medical researcher in her own right at a time women doctors were scarce in the field of medicine. The book took her 10 years to write and necessitated ploughing through boxes of papers, reports, photographs, etc., becoming in the process, during her retirement years, an accomplished medical history archivist.

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Children’s Hospital 10-story tower demolition, view north from Rene-Levesque, March 20, 2018 – Image: Eric Craven

Dr Jesse Boyd Scriver was another Montreal woman trailblazer in the field of medicine, following in the footsteps of Dr Irma Lavasseur. In 1922, she was one of the first female McGill Medical School graduates (four women having been admitted during the WW1 years as “partial students” – whatever that means). Previously a male bastion, their admittance was not popular among the male medical students, who did not treat them well. But she persevered, graduating second in her class, and receiving the Wood Gold Medal award for the most outstanding clinical performance in a clerkship year.

‘Dr Jesse Boyd Scriver was another Montreal woman trailblazer in the field of medicine, following in the footsteps of Dr Irma Lavasseur.’

She went on to study at Harvard and in Boston and later taught Paediatrics at McGill, where she was appointed one of its first female full professors. She was also the Paediatrician-in-Charge at the Royal Victoria Hospital from 1950 to 1956 and was affiliated with both the RVH and the MCH from 1926 to 1957. As a medical researcher, she carried out landmark research in sickle-cell anemia and helped build pediatrics into a separate specialty.

What is needed now, of course, is someone to step up and provide the story of the middle years of the MCH. My thanks to Dr Patricia Forbes for the loan of her signed copy of Dr Jesse’s book.

A story as yet untold

Thanks also to Kiley Goyette for her detailed research papers on the life and times of the Alexandra Hospital for Contagious Diseases in Point St Charles. They’re a fascinating look into a part of 20th century West-end Montreal medical and social history that is not widely known, or appreciated, and whose story remains, as yet, unpublished. Her research papers will be available for public access at the ALCC Living History project files.

Further updates and the public access launch date

The Atwater Library Seniors’ group will have some of the collection available for access by the public as of mid-2018 but do check back over the coming months in the and/or the Atwater Library website for more snapshots and updates on this vibrant Living History Collection project.

Read also: Children’s Stories – Part 1 and Children’s Stories – Part 2

Bouton S'inscrire à l'infolettre –

Feature image: “Only a memory” – the MCH Dorchester-Tupper Campus, December 2017 – Courtesy: Eric Craven


Wanda Potrykus is a writer, editor, translator and poet. A graduate of McGill, she has spent most of her career in marketing communications, PR, event and media relations specializing in international aviation, telecommunications, education and the marketing of the arts.

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  1. Cynthia Hammond

    A really wonderful history, and oral history! of this important building and the larger landscape of paediatric medicine in Montreal. Bravo!

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