An Infectious Idea: Public Health in Toronto
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The early period of public health in Toronto (1885-1929) was driven by the idea that the eradication of infectious diseases was essential for social progress. The “germ theory” gained acceptance, replacing the widely held belief that disease was spread either spontaneously or through bad smells.
The new knowledge about micro–organisms caused the Department of Public Health to focus on achieving clean water and air, in addition to such usual concerns as adequate housing and nutrition, health education, and free medical and dental services for the poor.
Dr. Charles Hastings, the medical officer of health from 1910 to 1929, was a pioneering social activist who took full advantage of the public’s interest in social reform to further his own health agenda.
Dr. Hastings’ departure from office signaled a shift away from the activism of the early Department of Public Health. The next four medical officers of health, in place from 1929 to 1981, lacked Hastings’ dynamic personality and visionary passion, but offset his talents with their own abilities as professional civil servants and dedicated doctors.
Their approach was to make incremental changes in public health management, with continued improvements to existing services, and the adoption of new medical developments, such as the polio vaccine.
By the later 1970s, public fears of emerging environmental hazards added a new emphasis to the department’s work.
Today, Toronto Public Health continues to further the goals shared by the earlier Department of Public Health, to build a healthy city where everyone may enjoy the highest level of well-being.
While continuing to combat the spread of disease, Toronto Public Health focuses its energies on community advocacy, taking a leadership role in promoting healthy living, community education and mobilization, emergency planning and preparedness, and other innovative initiatives to encourage us all to be as healthy as possible.