Connaught Labs

Thursday March 12, 2015

Thanks to my friend James, who hooked me up with historian Christopher Rutty, I was able to have a lunch hour tour of the museum at Sanofi Pasteur.  I have worked at Dufferin and Steeles for 17 years and often wondered about the history of the fancy old buildings near the south east corner.

Fisherville was named after the Fisher family.  Jacob Fisher emigrated from Pennsylvania with 22 members of his family in 1797. They were granted lots 25 and 26 which were on both sides of Steeles, east of Dufferin street. They ran a saw mill on the West Don River and later a grist mill which operated with different owners until about 1912.  By the 1870’s the property had been divided and was under several owners with the Fisher house and mill in the hands of G. H. Appleby.

John G. Fitzgerald was born in 1882 in Drayton Ontario.  He attended the University of Toronto medical school where he graduated at the young age of 21.  In 1913 he became the professor of hygene at the university.  Using his wife’s inheritance money he built a back yard stable on Barton street and acquired a couple of horses.  He began to produce the antitoxin for diptheria which he sold to the Canadian Government at cost for free distribution.  The university decided to back him and in 1914 the Antitoxin labs were opened.  The original stable was in danger of being demolished and has been moved to the Fisherville site. One side of the stables has no windows because it used to stand against another building in it’s original location.

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Inside, the old stable has been restored and served as a museum to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the antitoxin labs.

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Albert Gooderham was the grandson of William Gooderham of Gooderham and Worts distillery and served as chairman of the Ontario branch of the Red Cross.  With the outbreak of World War 1 there was a shortage of tetanus shots for the soldiers.  In order to increase production, space was required to increase the number of horses that could be cared for.  Albert took John G. Fitzgerald for a country drive one day in 1915 and ended up at the old Fisher farm, now abandoned, but still complete with the mill and pond.  Albert bought the property and built the labs and stables which were opened on October 25, 1917.  The Connaught Antitoxin Laboratories and University Farm was named after the Duke of Connaught, Canada’s governor general during WW1.

The cover photo was borrowed from the Sanofi Pasteur Canada Centenary Facebook page which I highly recommend for additional information on this historical site.  It shows the antitoxin labs with the company truck, also donated by Gooderham, which made the 20 mile trip back and forth to the university a couple times per week.  The photo below shows the labs today.  The middle section between the two towered ends of the right hand building contained stables while labs and production facilities were located in the rest of the two original buildings. The original 1913 stable has recently been relocated between the two 1916 buildings to form a heritage square.

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Horses were essential to the production of antitoxins.  Horses can be safely injected with small amounts of toxins that have no negative effect on the animal.  Their bodies produce an antitoxin that can be removed and administered to a human to make the person immune to the toxin. Horses were bought by Fitzgerald that were headed for the glue factory and given new life as living antitoxin producers.  For example, one horse could produce enough tetanus serum for 15,000 soldiers during WW1.  The picture below is from a January 25, 1928 Macleans article, but taken from the same Facebook page as the cover photo, describing how this horse and one other produced enough meningitis serum for all of Canada.

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Prior to the discovery of insulin a person who had diabetes pretty much had a death sentence. In 1920 Dr. Frederick Banting had the idea that led to the discovery of Insulin.  He brought the idea to the University of Toronto where a small experiment was set up using dogs.  When human trials were successful a large scale production method needed to be perfected. Connaught Labs had the ability and in 1923 they began a sixty year history of supplying all the insulin used in Canada.  The historical insulin vials in the picture below are on display at the museum.

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Fitzgerald passed away on June 20th 1940.  His desk, chair and an early ledger have been preserved in the heritage museum.  The picture above the desk shows the early days of Connaught Labs and he kept it above his desk at the university.

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Connaught Labs pioneered the process of growing the poliovirus in rocking glass bottles that became known as the Toronto Method.  It involved culturing the virus using a purely synthetic tissue culture known as “Medium 199,”.  In 1962 Connaught Labs licensed the Sabin oral polio vaccine.  I was likely among the first people to be administered this vaccine.  Connaught Labs also played a key role in the eradication of small pox.  Povitsky bottles used for the Toronto Method are seen in the lower right of the display below.

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In 1972 the University sold Connaught Labs to the Canadian Development Corporation making it a “for profit” company for the first time.  Mergers and expansions in 1989, 1999 and 2004 resulted in the formation of Sanofi Pasteur which employs 1,100 people in it’s Toronto facility. Over the past 100 years they have played a key role in the development of public health in Canada and have a vision of a world in which no one suffers or dies from a vaccine preventable disease.  Nearly a hundred buildings, including research facilities, have been constructed on the compound which can be seen outlined in red in the recent photo below.  The two buildings that started it all are in the lower right of the property.

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The farm where Jacob Fisher settled his family and built his mill has been used to save the lives and reduce the suffering of countless millions of people around the world.  I think Mr. Fisher would be very proud of how the farm he worked so hard to clear over 200 years ago is being used today.

2 thoughts on “Connaught Labs

  1. Pingback: Alpha Mills | Hiking the GTA

  2. Pingback: Fisherville – Ghost Towns of Toronto | Hiking the GTA

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