Review: “Doreen, You Gotta Walk….”

In 1937 Canada had a higher infant mortality rate than South Africa and Ireland. Until 1919 all national medical services were managed by the Department of Agriculture. Child deaths were such an inescapable horror in family life that Prime Minister John Thompson (1892-4) lost four of his nine children in infancy.

Historian Mona Gleason documents the dawn of awareness that Canada’s infants could not be left to sicken and die in an expression of survival of the fittest: “Merely being small and young, in other words, required medical attention.”

Small Matters: Canadian Children in Sickness and Health is a compelling social history that chronicles the country’s struggle towards the light.

Canada’s first children’s hospital ward opened in Montreal in 1822. By 1879 the first course in pediatrics was introduced, at the University of Laval. Yet there was little understanding of infant care beyond folklore. It’s a phenomenon still visible today in the sweep of gravestones depicting little lambs and cherubs that dominate any 19th century Canadian cemetery.

It was as if the small and weak were never meant to live. Gleason cites an 1897 medical text that warned the newborn “is almost certain sooner or later to exhibit tendencies to disease in the direction of the stock from whence it springs…it may receive an inheritance of tuberculosis or epilepsy, or a tendency to gout or rheumatism.”

Where health and hygiene were introduced in the classroom, the treatment leaned to morality and abstinence from sin.  An 1896 text Gage’s Health Series for Intermediate Classes cautioned students to beware of wine jelly: “The appetite, becoming uncontrollable, may bring its owner to a drunkard’s grave.”

The result was the appalling infant mortality rate. A century ago approximately 1 in 6 babies Canadian babies died by age three. In the tubercular slums of the bigger cities the death rate was worse, 1 in 3.

“Overall, the high rate of infant mortality was a state of affairs largely accepted as tragic, but not yet a matter of concern,” writes Gleason, of the University of British Columbia.

Small Matters draws on our deepest childhood memories of illness. Who forgets the blight of chicken pox, or the smell of VapoRub in a shuttered bedroom, or soothing cool of vanilla ice cream after a tonsillectomy?

So, the most unforgettable voices in Gleason’s work are oral histories – like Theresa, who recalls being stricken with polio, the scourge that afflicted 50,000 Canadians till 1962: “When I went to Toronto when I was sixteen, they drilled into me that, ‘Your polio is in your mind. You can do anything. Don’t let polio keep you down’…I remember one girl had polio in both legs, and they stood her up against the wall and she walked with these crutches. And they said to her, ‘Come on, Doreen, you got to walk.’ ‘I can’t.’ She’d cry and she would cry.”

The country cried. Then we got better.

By Holly Doan

Small Matters: Canadian Children in Sickness and Health by Mona Gleason; McGill-Queens University Press; 232 Pages; ISBN 9780-7735-41337; $29.95

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