The doctor who saved thousands of Irish lives but lost his own

Toronto’s Dr Grasett Park will honour a doctor who died treating Irish famine victims

In the 19th century, typhus occupied a place in the public conscience in a way that Covid-19 does now – except typhus was much more deadly, incurable and unknowable.

Doctors did not know what caused it, and there were no treatments. The disease was spread by human lice which thrive in filthy conditions. The unsanitary, overcrowded cabins of the coffin ships were ideal breeding grounds.

The symptoms were fever, body and muscle aches. After five or six days a tell-tale rash appeared on the body. After 14 days the patient recovered naturally or died often a protracted, painful death.

Today, epidemic typhus is extraordinarily rare and can be cured with antibiotics. In the 19th century there was no cure, and 30 per cent of those who contracted the illness died from it.


During the Great Famine it was known as “Irish fever”, and host communities greatly feared the arrival of Irish famine immigrants. Liverpool was overwhelmed by a typhus epidemic in 1847 which affected 60,000 people in the city.

Its chief medical officer, Dr William Henry Duncan, blamed Irish emigrants for turning Liverpool into a “city of the plague”.

The cause of typhus was not discovered until 1916. Ignorance of its origins made it an even more terrifying proposition. There were six outbreaks of typhus in Ireland in the 19th century. It usually coincided with times of hunger or poor harvests, when malnourished bodies were more susceptible to infection.

Often, whole towns went into voluntary quarantine, and armed men were posted on the outskirts to prevent strangers entering.

Coffin ships

During the Great Famine, conditions on ships sailing from Ireland were so bad that, on arrival, thousands of immigrants were kept on board in the heat of summer with no ventilation, clean water and inadequate food. Corpses remained in the hold of the ship unburied. Quarantine could last for weeks.

In Death or Canada, the historian Prof Mark McGowan quotes an observer's account of a landing in Toronto: "We got rid of most of our living cargo, whom they treated just like cattle driving them about…they were all turned out and kept back with sticks till their luggage would be tumbled out after them."

Another observer noted the poor conditions aboard the arriving steamships and describes one official “stagger back like one struck, when first meeting a current of foetid infection exhaled from between her decks”.

Between March and October 1847, 98,000 Irish emigrants landed in modern-day Canada in ports along the St Lawrence River. At the time Toronto was a prosperous place of 20,000 people. It was an Anglican town of mostly English and Protestant settlers with a small minority of Irish people. It had everything to lose from allowing boatloads of immigrants to land at its jetty. In the space of six months 38,000 immigrants, twice the settled population of the city, landed in Toronto.

Dr George Robert Grasett was a respected and prosperous doctor in the town. He was the son of a British army surgeon who had emigrated to Quebec City in 1814. Grasett ran the Toronto General Dispensary, which gave “medical and surgical advice and medicines to the indigent sick”.

He was an Anglican, the secretary of the Ontario Bible Society and took his Christian duties to the poor seriously. When he heard boatloads of penniless Irish immigrants were coming once the ice was off the Great Lakes, he could have quailed at the summons and made his excuses. Instead, he volunteered to help out.

He was appointed by the city’s Board of Health as medical superintendent of the newly created Emigrant Hospital on June 22nd, 1847.

Typhus could be transmitted only by close contact with other people. It afflicted two sets of people in particular, the very poor and those who looked after them. At the Emigrant Hospital, between six and eight patients were dying every day. Thousands of others were kept in fever sheds which were no more than open-sided canvas structures that kept out the sun and rain. Doctors believed, erroneously, that typhus was spread by bad ventilation, hence the use of open-sided fever sheds even in the depths of winter.

Dr Grasett was aware of the risks when he agreed to take charge, but he decided to do his duty anyway.

On July 16th, 1847, less than a month after taking on the role, he died from the very disease he was trying to treat and was buried at the cemetery at St James Cathedral a day later.

The British Colonist, Toronto's newspaper at the time, said of him: "Since his appointment as hospital superintendent, he knew no other duty than that of staying disease and alleviating the sufferings of those who, driven from their own land by famine and pestilence, sought a refuge among us, their brethren in Canada."

The British American Medical and Physical Journal, called Dr Grasett “a young man of great promise.” A deputation to the Grasett family from the House of Industry (the city’s chamber of commerce) conveyed its “deepest regret” at Dr Grasett’s passing and noted that all “particularly the poor, were so deeply indebted by his uniform kindness.”

On the impact of his death on those who frequented the dispensary, the Journal wrote: “In the humble abodes of the suffering poor of this large town, in the reception room of the dispensary where his benevolent smile was wont to greet them, his virtues are the theme of daily praise, and his death the subject of deep and lasting sorrow.”

Robert Kearns, the chair and founder of the Ireland Park Foundation that created Dr Grasett Park, says they could find no evidence that the doctor had ever been paid for his work.

“He could have looked up a different street and expanded his practice in medicine to all the smart drawing rooms of the city, but instead he said, ‘no, I think it is important to help these people’. It is an extraordinary story,” he said.

“Why is it important? You have both traditions on the island of Ireland coming to the help of people, both Catholic and Protestant, English-speaking and Gaelic-speaking and helping people regardless of their political persuasion, their religious views and at risk of their own lives. It was an incredibly courageous thing to do.”

Tsunami of misery

Emigrants who were obviously ill were housed first in sheds at the wharf, and later, once the General Hospital had been repurposed, at the Emigrant Hospital. As the summer progressed, and the cases of typhus among arriving emigrants increased, measures were introduced to prevent the spread of disease to the general city population.

All steamers carrying emigrants to Rees Wharf in Toronto were confined in an effort to more tightly control the arrivals and movements of emigrants. Once triaged, sick emigrants were forbidden to move beyond the reception sheds or the hospital, and once discharged they were forbidden from begging in city streets.

Torontonians in the business of renting rooms were required to report signs of illness in their emigrant lodgers and risked conviction if they failed to do so.

Dr Grasett was not the only medic to die in the services of the Irish poor that summer. Many other doctors and nurses perished as they sought to deal with a tsunami of misery from Ireland.

Supervising it all was Edward McElderry, a native of Toronto, and a merchant in the town. He took the position of emigrant agent in 1846. His job was to accommodate the healthy Irish emigrants and keep the sick ones away from the rest of the population.

He died from dysentery, another infectious disease common in famine immigrants, in October 1847. At the time his wife Roseanna was pregnant with their sixth child.

Dr Joseph Hamilton, an English-born doctor, died of typhus on November 15th 1847 after tending to sick Irish immigrants in the fever sheds.

A third medic who died was the head nurse of the Emigrant Hospital Susan Bailey. Her burial record lists her as having died of "fever". Her occupation and marital status indicate that Bailey was most certainly working-class and probably poor.

Nursing in Canada in this period was not a trained or professional occupation. The majority of nurses in the province’s hospitals were unskilled and illiterate and consequently they were poorly paid.

The wages of a nurse were insufficient to support a single woman, and as such, like Bailey, most nurses were married women.

Three nurses who died were Irish (Sarah Jane Sherwood, Sarah Duggan and Catherine Doherty); two (Anne Slocumb and William Harrison), were English and two orderlies, John McNabb and Richard Jones, both teenagers, died within a day of each other in August 1847 all from the "fever" - typhus.

Bishop Michael Power, the son of emigrants from Waterford who was appointed as the first Roman Catholic Bishop of Toronto in 1842, contracted typhus amid his twice-daily visits to the fever sheds to tend to the sick and dying Irish migrants.

His funeral, attended by both Catholics and Protestants alike, was the largest in the city’s history to that point.

‘Best of humanity’

Those who came to the aid of the starving Irish poor were remembered when Dr Grasett Park was officially opened in the city on July 16th. It is located on the site where Toronto’s first purpose-built general hospital was built.

The project has been in the planning since 2008 when the Canada Ireland Foundation acquired the land with the purpose of creating a park. The events of the past 15 months have given it a contemporary resonance.

The city made world headlines in 2003 as it was the hardest-hit place in the world outside Asia for the Sars epidemic, but the numbers involved – 438 suspected cases and 44 deaths – were tiny in comparison with the 185 million cases worldwide and four million deaths from Covid-19.

Among those who have died in the latest pandemic have been thousands of doctors and nurses who took many of the same risks as Dr Grasett did 174 years ago.

Dr Grasett Park was opened yesterday on the anniversary of his death. “The 16th of July would be a great day to name healthcare workers day. If that happened in Ireland and Canada it would be pretty special,” said Kearns, an Irish emigrant who has been living in Toronto since 1979.

“We hope visitors will learn from the sacrifices of these individuals, not just as a retelling of history, but as a demonstration of the foundations of the best of humanity in a park honouring the courage of all frontline heroes everywhere.

“We have memorials to soldiers, sailors and airmen, but precious few to doctors, nurses and hospital orderlies. This memorial will speak to the incredible courage showed by healthcare workers who treated patients during the Covid-19 pandemic.”