Nova Scotia

Victoria General sat empty for its first 10 years, and then the real problems began

The oft-troubled hospital sat empty for its first decade — and then the real problems started.

Halifax hospital traces its roots to log cabins that served as a prison/hospital

Parts of the original Victoria General lurk inside today's building. (Robert Short/CBC)

New beautiful things decay with disheartening speed, prompting reflection upon the failing nature of all goods.

Consider the Victoria General Hospital: today reviled as a failing, flooded facility that the premier of Nova Scotia promises to destroy within seven years. Both the Victoria and the Centennial buildings are set to fall by 2022.

And yet in 1967, Stephen McNeil's predecessor, then-premier Robert L. Stanfield, celebrated the opening of the $13 million Centennial building.

A young writer named Ron Stewart toured the new facility for an article in the winter 1968 edition of the Dalhousie Medical Journal.

"The patient of 1967 sleeps in an electric bed, adjustable to any height, on coated foam rubber mattresses. An intercom between each patient and the nurse allows almost instant communication," he reports.

"Patients are treated in one of 25 shiny new operating theatres stocked with the latest in medical tech and "ultra-modern monitoring equipment."

And the glorious old Victoria building — already a century old when the Centennial opened — would be completely reborn. "This institution has grown from a brick building in a cow-field to one of the largest and best-known hospitals in Canada," Stewart writes.

Dr. Ron Stewart is leading a community initiative to save the McNeil's Beach Lighthouse. (Courtesy Dalhousie University)

Stewart traces the hospital's ultimate origins back to the dawn of Halifax, when the new city opened a small wooden hospital near Parade Square in 1749.

By 1765, Halifax hosted two log-cabin hospitals; one sat near St. Mathews Church and the second near St. Davids Church.

Both served as a prison/hospital and treated the inmates and invalids the same. It was a common British practice at the time to merge such facilities. 

Plans for a brand-new facility that would only treat Nova Scotia's "diseased citizens" got a boost in 1844, when Halifax's mayor handed over his entire year's salary to kickstart a "lunatic asylum or any other public charity."

Finally, Halifax pointed to a boggy southern field busy with sport hunters shooting game birds and said: this will be our city hospital site. 

Isaac Hubley's busted ankle

By 1857, the $38,000 new Provincial and City Hospital of Halifax was mostly finished, but ran into problems long before it opened. 

"Heating was poor; the stoves smoked. Gas and water lacked, and drainage was inadequate. The public purse was again dipped into for the purpose of repairs, and the average Haligonian became antagonistic towards the structure — indeed, towards the whole idea of paying for a hospital," Stewart writes.

It took a bad cholera outbreak in 1866 to give Dr. Charles Tupper the opportunity to finally open the hospital. 

On April 15, 1867, a farmer named Isaac Hubley dragged his wrecked ankle inside to officially become the first patient of the nine-year-old hospital. 

The doctors and nurses examined Hubley's damaged leg, put him in splints, and sent him back to his St. Margaret's Bay farm, noting he was "unimproved."

"Whereas Mr. Hubley, the first patient, hobbled up to the ward with his strophulus ankle joint in 1867, patients are now taken through a modern admitting department to their room, or are received in a well-equipped and efficient Emergency Department," Stewart tells us.

In 1887, Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee and Halifax rechristened the facility the Victoria General Hospital.

The building has been expanded and rebuilt so many times that it's hard to say what's left of the original. 

The historian who became a health minister

And whatever became of Ron Stewart — the writer who provided this history?

He graduated from medical school, became a doctor, then an MLA. He served as Nova Scotia's health minister from 1993-97 and today is professor emeritus at Dalhousie University. 

He also was named an officer in the Order of Canada in 1993 and a member of the Order of Nova Scotia in 2006. 

Reached at his Halifax office, he says the Victoria General Hospital served generations of Nova Scotians well. 

"It's so busily used that it's not surprising to me that if it's not maintained, or the technology is so rapidly changing, and the needs are increasing and increasing ... that the hospital is subjected to pressures that other buildings are not," he said.

While he's not nostalgic to see the old building get its execution orders, he does remember the work people did in its walls — the countless lives saved or improved and the medical professionals who learned their trade.

"When you look at how it's served and what it's done? The number of people who have been trained there?" he said, "There are many of us who owe our education to the patients within those walls, and to the staff who taught us."

About the Author

Jon Tattrie

Reporter

Jon Tattrie is a journalist and the author of two novels and five non-fiction books. He won the RTDNA's 2015 Adrienne Clarkson Award. Find him at www.jontattrie.ca

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