170 years ago, disease spread through what is now eastern and central Canada. The event followed the arrival of hundreds of desperate Irish migrants trying to escape a detrimental famine in their home land.
It was the summer of 1847, before Confederation and when Canada was still referred to as the British Province of Canada. The Irish potato crop was struck by blight, which started a horrid famine – now known as The Great Famine – that killed millions of people. Many fled to Canada in an attempt to escape. About 38,000 arrived in Canada that summer, along with cholera and typhus – two deadly diseases that are easily transmittable.
Que Dr. George Robert Grasett, a doctor from Toronto who chose to apply his skills to treat the sick, specifically those arriving from Ireland. He knew what the ramifications would be, that he would most likely die from treating the sick, and he did so regardless. He died of fever that same summer, in July 1847 at age 36.
The Toronto Ireland Park already exists in memorandum of that year, located on the waterfront just south of CityPlace. However, after more digging into events, Dr. Grasett’s story was discovered, along with the information that he was a wealthy Protestant doctor who chose to help the Catholic Irish and risked his life doing so. There are no drawings of the man, just newspaper clippings from a Montreal newspaper that mentioned his name that same summer.
“What happened was a calamity for the city, and people wanted to put it behind them and forget,” said Robert Kearns, chairman of the Ireland Park Foundation, as reported by the Globe and Mail. “George Grasett was well-off and part of the establishment. He had access to every smart drawing room in the city. He could have kept walking up Jarvis Street to attend to his private patients, the wealthy and powerful. But he didn’t. You could say he was the first Médecins Sans Frontières doctor in Canada. And he knew he would die helping these people.”
The new Dr. George Robert Grasett Park, introduced by The Ireland Park Foundation, will be located at Adelaide Street West and Widmer Street. It will be a small space that will feature a laminated glass installation by an artist. The glass will contain a pattern made out of cheesecloth that will represent the same material that would have been used by Dr. Grasett when treating victims of typhus. Construction for the park began on June 21.
All photos courtesy of Denegri Bessai Studio.