Visiting and Recognizing the Past: Toronto’s 1919-1920 Smallpox Outbreak

Sara Wilmshurst

A few years ago, on this very site, I published an article about combatting vaccine resistance with historical education. Surely, I thought, if people understood how devastating preventable diseases could be, everyone would be eager to roll up a sleeve and be jabbed.

Such is the pain of living through historic times. At least I learned something.

Like many of the historians who contributed to the recent series, cycling has been an outlet during the COVID-19 pandemic and a way to visit various pockets of my adopted city, Toronto, even as the weather cools and low points in the path become puddles.

When riding up the Don River trail, I always think about a place that no longer exists: the Swiss Cottage Hospital. The twenty-five-bed institution was part of the Riverdale Isolation Hospital complex; it specifically served patients with smallpox. The building was disused for several years when it burned in 1930. The nearby Riverdale Hospital (now Hennick Bridgepoint Health) has a Heritage Toronto plaque but the humbler smallpox hospital has no such marker.

Alt text: A black-and-white photograph of a brick building with two full storeys and a gable roof. There is a grassy lawn in front of the building and a stand of evergreen trees behind it.

“Smallpox Isolation Hospital,” City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 331. Public domain.

In the second winter of the COVID-19 pandemic I cannot help but think of Toronto’s 1919-1920 smallpox outbreak. It began in November 1919, when public health officials confirmed the outbreak of chickenpox in the city was, in fact, smallpox.

 Alt text: A map with Greater Toronto and its suburbs shaded in. There are black points throughout the map to mark smallpox cases.

“Smallpox Map of Greater Toronto and Suburbs, 1919-1920”, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 629. Public domain.

On November 3, 1919, a small item in the Toronto Daily Star warned a “mild smallpox wave is visiting Toronto.” “So far it has not been fatal,” the article noted, “but the health authorities say it will likely become more severe as it spreads.” Fifteen citizens were in isolation[1] at the Swiss Cottage Hospital. Dr. Charles Hastings, the city’s Medical Officer of Health, mandated smallpox vaccination for all Toronto students and sought a city-wide vaccination order.[2]

The general order to vaccinate the general population passed the Board of Health that day. The acting Chair of the Board, Alderman Ryding, did voice some resistance. “Don’t you think that will alarm people[?]” Ryding asked. “I don’t want proclamations posted throughout the city.” Hastings managed to put a stop to Ryding’s grousing, asking, “[d]o you consider your opinion of more value than mine in such matters?” [3]

The next day City Council ribbed Ryding for crumbling and declined to ratify the general vaccination order. Controller McBride argued “[i]f we put this in force it will not be vaccine points, but an ax that will be used. Even if there are two or three persons with smallpox, surely with the hundred or so nurses, the highly-paid doctors and all the money we spend, surely they can look after the situation without very [sic] body being vaccinated.”[4]

Anti-vaccination activists mobilized to prevent city authorities from revising that stance. On November 6 homeopath Henry Becker led a delegation to the Toronto Board of Control, to argue “80 per cent” of Torontonians opposed compulsory vaccination. Becker went on to falsely claim smallpox vaccine was “made from the grease taken from the heels of horses, from swine-pox, and even from corpses…[f]rom dead human bodies.” McBride quipped “the serum is made from horse’s blood. What we need is a little more horse-sense and a little less horse-blood.”[5] He announced he would not be vaccinated or force anyone else to be.[6]

On November 11 anti-vaccinationists planned to meet city council and advance their claim vaccination killed more than three times as many people as smallpox.[7] By November 13, twenty-seven citizens were in hospital with smallpox.[8] That day the Anti-Vaccination League of Canada held a protest at City Hall. Attendees hoisted a banner which read “Stop the Slaughter of the Innocents!”

Alt text: A crowd dressed in hats and coats fills a city street. There are banners with the following text: “Stop the slaughter of the innocents! Protest against compulsory vaccination” and “Compulsory vaccination German born – down with compulsion!!”

“Anti-vaccination Rally at City Hall,” City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 2517. Public domain.

Perhaps everyone reading this during a pandemic would like to take a deep breath and look out the window for a moment.

Fortunately, the 1919 smallpox outbreak was unusually mild, with only 11 deaths in Toronto, a case fatality rate of about 0.4%. Smallpox usually had a case fatality rate of 30-50% (among unimmunized people). Furthermore, in contrast to COVID-19, in 1919 much of the population was already immune through natural exposure and prior inoculation, and there was a known, effective vaccine against smallpox. Toronto’s own Connaught Labs had been producing smallpox vaccine since 1917 and had capacity to produce a million doses in 1919-1920. Despite anti-vaccine rhetoric, 200,000 Torontonians sought out immunization during the smallpox outbreak, in a city of approximately 521,000.

It is a heartening point of comparison. No matter how noisy anti-vaccination activists became, in 1919 and today, a large contingent of Torontonians chose to protect themselves and their communities through vaccination. As of the time of writing 76.1% of Torontonians are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. However, I fear a long winter of rolling lockdowns awaits us.

I wanted to take advantage of a beautiful cycling day before the snow falls so I decided to ride over to Riverdale Park and try to locate the Swiss Cottage Hospital site. Preliminary research did not reveal an exact address. A 1914 Toronto Daily Star article mentioned the hospital was located “over a hill on the east side of the Winchester street bridge east of the Don”.[9] The Winchester Street Bridge is gone, though the Riverdale Park Bridge spans the Don River close by.

I locked my bike up and squelched across the rain-soaked park grounds, trying to triangulate where Winchester Street, now a dead-end west of the Don, would have run in 1919. I hustled toward a concrete pylon I ardently hoped would be a historic plaque of some kind, but upon inspection it was a raised sewer cover.

Luckily, the Riverdale Park East historic plaque includes an archival photo from 1914, showing a cricket match in the park. In the background, in a stand of trees, you can see the east wall of the Swiss Cottage Hospital.

 Alt text: A black-and-white photo of several men playing cricket in a park. There is a treed hill in the background and a building is visible through the trees.

“Riverdale Park, cricket,” City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1283. Public domain.

The landscape has certainly changed since then. In the 1990s the Task Force to Bring Back the Don rehabilitated and expanded the woodland right where I believe the Swiss Cottage Hospital stood. They also added a wetland at the bottom of the slope in 2002, turning damp and uninviting parkland into a plant and wildlife habitat.

a colour photo of a lawn with a running track and baseball pitch. There is a hill on the left side of the picture and there are trees and high-rise buildings in the distance. The sky is blue with quite a few light grey clouds.

Photo by the author.

I did not want to disturb people camping in the woodland, so I resisted the urge to tramp around looking for bricks and foundations. However, I am strangely delighted by this project, to set out and experience space, and remember what happened there.

Sara Wilmshurst (she/her) studied history at the University of Guelph and co-authored a book, Be Wise! Be Healthy! Morality and Citizenship in Canadian Public Health Campaigns. She now works in historical consulting.


[1] “Mild Smallpox Wave is Visiting Toronto,” The Toronto Daily Star (November 3, 1919): 14.

[2] “Mild Smallpox Wave is Visiting Toronto,” The Toronto Daily Star (November 3, 1919): 14.

[3] “The Board of Health is for Vaccination,” The Toronto Daily Star (November 3, 1919): 1.

[4] “Request of M.O.H. Arouses Aldermen,” The Toronto Daily Star (November 4, 1919): 4.

[5] As Joanna Dean explained in her Active History post “Animal Matter: The Making of ‘Pure’ Bovine Vaccine at the Connaught Laboratories and Farm at the Turn of the Century”, smallpox vaccine was actually produced from calves and did not contain blood products.

[6] “Vaccination Called ‘Crime’ by the Antis,” The Toronto Daily Star (November 6, 1919): 2.

[7] “Will Carry on Fight Against Vaccination,” The Toronto Daily Star (November 11, 1919): 8.

[8] “Fifty-one New Cases of Smallpox To-day,” The Toronto Daily Star (November 13, 1919): 1.

[9] “Only One Death in Smallpox Hospital,” The Toronto Daily Star (February 7, 1914): 7.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

2 thoughts on “Visiting and Recognizing the Past: Toronto’s 1919-1920 Smallpox Outbreak

  1. Sue Cutler

    I’m looking at a copy of an old map that shows the “Small Pox Hospital” in the same range as Hogarth Avenue. The building is shown to the east of the CPR tracks but west of Winchester Road which at this time still lead up to Doncaster.

Please note: encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.