Higgins, Trudeau honour doctor who died treating Irish famine emigrants

President compares Dr George Grasett’s actions to those of medics Covid-19 frontline

President Michael D Higgins said Dr Grasett ‘was a man compelled to help others’. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

President Michael D Higgins said Dr Grasett ‘was a man compelled to help others’. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

 

President Michael D Higgins and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau have paid tribute to a doctor who died while treating destitute and sick Irish famine emigrants.

Mr Higgins said there were many parallels between the sacrifice of Dr George Grasett in 1847 and the doctors and nurses who served on the frontlines during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr Grasett died on July 16th 1847 less than a month after taking over the Emigrant Hospital in Toronto.

He volunteered to be the chief attending surgeon in the hospital knowing he was at risk of getting epidemic typhus, which was then a fatal disease spread by human lice and was rife among famine immigrants.

In that year 38,000 Irish immigrants arrived on the dockside in Toronto. The city only had a population of 20,000.

Grasett Park was opened in Toronto on the site of the original general hospital in the city on the 174th anniversary of his death. The park was established by the Canada Ireland Foundation of which President Higgins is the patron.

“Dr Grasett was a man compelled to help others, to respond with compassion and empathy to the stranger who sought refuge on Canadian soil,” the President said.

“His actions embodied the spirit of empathy and respect that it is our moral duty to extend to those fleeing poverty, conflict and oppression.

“The dedication of this park to Dr Grasett serves as a timely reminder of the significant contribution made by healthcare and basic services workers to our general welfare globally.

“Throughout the long months of Covid-19 past, we have seen time and again how our nurses, doctors, all of our frontline medical staff and basic services workers continue to show their resolve and determination in combating the pandemic.”

Rendering of a corner view of Grasett Park in Toronto
Rendering of a corner view of Grasett Park in Toronto

Mr Higgins thanked the people of Canada for their generosity during the famine.

“I am delighted to have the opportunity to express, on behalf of the people of Ireland, our gratitude to the people of Canada for not only having welcomed Irish emigrants to your country, but for having enabled them to become an integral part of Canada, making their own distinct and valuable contributions to their societies, workplaces and communities.”

Mr Trudeau said the sacrifice of Dr Grasett showed “what it means to be Canadian”.

Ten per cent of Irish immigrants arrived gravely ill from typhus, he said. Mr Trudeau paid tribute not only to Dr Grasett but also the other medics who died treating the Irish in Black ’47.

“Their heroism came at a great cost to their own safety and well-being. Within just a month of helping newcomers, he had died tragically,” Mr Trudeau said.

“The story of Dr Grasett is what it means to be Canadian. No matter where you come from, we look out for one another.”