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The first half-century of Durham Region’s psychiatric hospital: Part I

Workers take a break during the construction of what eventually became the Whitby Psychiatric Hospital.

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

ntario’s healthcare system has changed significantly over the past century, and the treatment and perception of mental health is an area seeing a lot of change.

Some older forms of treatment, and even terms associated with mental health, would never pass these days.

But years ago, many patients were sent away to Ontario’s psychiatric hospitals, or as others called them, “lunatic asylums.”

Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Services celebrated its 100th anniversary this past fall. This week’s Fourth Estate will look at the first half of that history.

In 1912, the Ontario government bought up 640 acres of land for $128,000 ($2.9 million today) to build what was first known as the Whitby Hospital for the Insane.

“Whitby Hospital, set atop the picturesque Lake Ontario shoreline, would consist of 16 cottages, organized in two gender-segregated groupings, built along tree-lined avenues, each housing about 70 patients. The design also called for two large infirmaries, one each for male and female patients, a recreation hall, a tubercular and isolation hospital, a church and hall, greenhouses and a nursery, general stores and workshops, a surgical and pathological building, several kitchen and dining areas, several staff residences, a cold storage plant, and an administration building,” reads Ontario Shores’ website for the 100th anniversary.

Construction on the hospital began in 1913, with half of the 220 workers coming from the Guelph Reformatory, which was later converted into the Guelph Correctional Centre.

But bigger things were on the horizon, as World War I began in 1914.

Even as construction continued, the government turned over the building to the military and it was temporarily renamed The Ontario Military Hospital.

After the end of World War I, the hospital reverted to a psychiatric hospital and opened on Oct. 23, 1919, under the name of the Ontario Hospital for the Insane.

The first 50 patients were transferred from Toronto on Oct. 12, 1919. The remainder were transferred in January.

The first 50 patients were transferred there from another hospital in Toronto. A year later, the hospital housed nearly 1,000 patients and 140 staff.

As the 1920s drew to a close, the number of patients in the hospital was well over 1,500.

According to the Ontario Shores website, the first superintendent of the hospital, Dr. J.M. Forester, wanted it to be “free of all suggestion of a place of detention.”

“The wards are so arranged that it is impossible for a nurse or attendant to get out of hearing a patient’s voice,” Forester was once quoted.

There were two groupings of cottages at the hospital, one for men and one for women. Each grouping had a central kitchen and dining centre, which were split into eight home-like dining rooms, one for each cottage.

One of the most unique aspects of the hospital was the farm where patients performed farming duties and helped to produce all the milk, beef, pork, chicken, eggs, fruits and vegetables.

This farm allowed the hospital to remain self-sustainable during the Great Depression of the early-1930s.

But not everything at the hospital was good news.

Although there was a bed capacity of 1,542, the actual number of patients was hundreds above this.

A singing quartet make up of male nurses.

Despite hiring more staff, there was still a ratio of about eight patients to one staff member (nurses, attendants and nurse aides).

Two rather contrasting trends began to emerge in the mental health sector in the 1940s.

Treatments such as electroshock therapy and lobotomies began to rise, with more than 300 procedures performed in Whitby between 1948 and 1959.

At the same time, several studies began to highlight the abuse patients faced in psychiatric hospitals, including lack of hygiene, poor living conditions, and in some cases, starvation.

This began a move towards deinstitutionalization of those with mental health issues, bringing on alternative methods of treatment.

In the 1950s, anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs, such as chlorpromazine, came to the forefront, allowing many patients, such as those in Whitby, to begin new lives.

These less oppressive conditions began to move forward in the 1950s, as 200 patients received “ground parole” status, which allowed them to move more freely around the institution.

Even with these positive steps in the system, the changes continued as mental health institutions saw a complete overhaul in the early 1960s.

In 1961, construction began on the hospital’s new School of Nursing, a seven-storey facility that opened in 1967.

During this decade, the final lobotomy took place at the hospital, as well as the end of insulin shock therapy.

In 1968, the Province of Ontario introduced its first Mental Health Act, which was meant to regulate the involuntary admission of people into a psychiatric hospital.

Two large changes came to the hospital at the end of the 1960s, as the name changed to Whitby Psychiatric Hospital, and oversight of the hospital transferred from a superintendent to a medical director and


More than 300 leucotomy and lobotomy operations were performed at the hospital between 1948 and 1959 before the practice was largely discontinued. (Photos courtesy of Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health archives)

The once-bustling farm located at the hospital had slowed down as the number of patients decreased, and all equipment and stock sold through a public auction in 1969.

Throughout the first 50 years of Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health, it was viewed as a model of mental health care in its time.

Unfortunately, at the same time, patients of other psychiatric hospitals in Ontario were facing abuse and horrible treatment, revelations which wouldn’t come to light until decades later.

As the 1970s dawned, Whitby Psychiatric Hospital would continue to evolve and change.