Learning Unit: Public Health
Home ] Up ]



Studies: Publications

Educational Resources

Historic Sites in Scarborough Heights

Links for Toronto Links


Scarboro Heights Record

Search This Site

Table of Contents



Disease, Health Care and Mortality


Some Regional and Contextual Background Information

  • James and Margaret McCowan and their eight children arrived in Scarborough from Scotland in late May 1833. They settled at the foot of Meadowcliff Drive on Lot 20 Concessions B and C. They named their home “Springbank”.

  • The McCowan, Weir, Gibson, Muir and Tacket families all came to Canada from the Lesmahagow area of Scotland on the same ship.

  • James McCowan’s letter below was never posted. On August 28 1834 he and his third son, David, died of cholera. Margaret was left with two daughters under the age of ten, a daughter of 18 and three sons between the ages of 14 and 20.

  • Cholera Symptoms: gidiness, sick stomach, nervous agitation, intermittent slow or small pulse, cramps beginning at the tips of the fingers and toes, and rapidly approaching the trunk giving the first warning... (Quebec Mercury, Jan. 14 1832, as printed in M. O’Gallagher, Grosse Ile 1832-1937)

  • Robert McCowan (1813-1886) and his wife, Jane Underwood (1830-1864), had seven children. They had been living at their new farm on what was to become known as McCowan Road for only eight years when Jane tragically died on July 17 1864, probably in childbirth. Raising a family of seven, ranging in age from two to fourteen years, must have been an enormous task for Robert. None-the-less, he owned two hundred acres by the time of his death. His “homestead”, purchased in 1853, was “on the north side of the Kingston Road as it originally ran”. His other farm, purchased in 1876, was the original McCowan settlement on Lot 20, Concessions B and C overlooking Lake Ontario . (See also D.B. McCowan, The McCowans of Scarborough)

  • Robert’s eldest, James Archibald McCowan, married Isabella Bowes in 1875. They had four children. Isabella died giving birth to their fourth on November 19 1883. James A. arranged for the children to be raised by relatives in Scarborough and Pickering . Jim soon joined his McCowan cousins in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, where he had a second family, of five. By all accounts, James A. was a good family man and kept in touch with the McCowans in Scarborough . (Refer to M. Carr, James McCowan Family from 1833)

  • Alexander McCowan was a cousin of Robert McCowan Jr. Their wives were sisters -- Hannah and Georgeanna Ashbridge. Georgeanna died in December 1891, two weeks after giving birth to a daughter, Georgeanna Ruth Weir. Hannah looked after Alex’ motherless baby at Holmcrest for several months. According to his diary, Alex (a very busy farmer and community builder) visited the baby once a week or so during that time.

  • Mortality: Mr. W. Primmer reported the death rate in Scarboro as exceptionally high, there having been during the late winter fifteen interments in the cemetery under his care. Some of these were children, victims of epidemics, but not a few were females in the vigor of life. (Markham Economist, May 27 1875, as printed in Scarborough Historical Notes and Comments, V 3 #4, pg. 17)

  • Epidemics: Scarlet Fever has been very prevalent for some weeks past, as well as colds and influenza. The latter has been very severe on the aged and infirm, and the former has proved fatal in many cases among the young. Mr. R. Johnston has lost one, Mr. Callender two, and Dr. Closson three, all fine children.. (Markham Economist, March 11 1875, as printed in Scarborough Historical Notes and Comments, V 3 #4, pg. 15)

  • An unfortunate statistic in connection with the late nineteenth century ravages of scarlet fever, diphtheria, rheumatic fever and other diseases (and accidents) is drawn from the St. Andrew's gravestones of the McCowan family. Between 1840 and 1875 James McCowan and Martha Weir (Eglinton / Warden area) lost two of 11 children to childhood disease. Robert McCowan and Jane Underwood ( Kingston / McCowan) lost none of seven and Jean McCowan and Thomas Whiteside (Sheppard / Kennedy) lost none of six during the same general period. This mid-century childhood death rate was only about 8%. This figure represents a healthy improvement since the cholera epidemics of the early 1830s. In regretable contrast, the next generation of Scarborough McCowans lost 14 out of 39 to childhood disease during the period 1870-1905, for a 36% total loss.

  • A more general sampling of gravestones (269 burials) at the west end of St. Andrew’s cemetery reveals that 7% of burials were of infants, 11% were aged 1 to 14 years, 15% were 15 to 44, and 67% were over 44 years of age. In this sampling, the number of burials between 1875 to 1881 was almost twice the number during seven year periods in the early twentieth century. (Valerie Alexander, Impressions of Our Past Population, in Scarborough Historical Notes and Comments, V13 #1 p. 16.)

  • On July 23 1876, little Robert McCowan died at the age of three months, 25 days. His sister, Mary, was one month and 21 days old when she died. Their youngest sister, Maggie Bena, died in September 1883. She had been born on June 30 1883. Isabella McLeod McCowan, the mother of these three infants, died in July 1883 at 38 years of age. They are all buried in St. Andrew’s Churchyard, Scarborough . The stone has now likely disintegrated beyond recognition. Isabella’s husband was Robert McCowan (1845-1919), a first cousin of Robert McCowan of McCowan Road. Robert took his five surviving children to Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, shortly afterwards.

  • At their home on McCowan Road, Holmcrest, Robert McCowan and Hannah Ashbridge lost their two eldest daughters. Mildred Auburn died on Dec. 15 1880 (born April 30 1880). May McCowan was born on May 14 1882 and died of diphtheria on Feb. 17 1886 (Markham Economist, March 4 1886). Their youngest child, Hazel Auburn, died on April 28 1902, presumably also of diphtheria since the disease was again at Holmcrest less than four months earlier. Hazel had been born on Jan. 7 1899. The three little girls were also buried in St. Andrew’s Cemetery.

  • Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Young lived on the north side of Kingston Road in the "Crone House". This home was replaced by the Harold McCowan house in 1914. The Young farm was south of the original Kingston Road .

  • refer to http://www.beamccowan.com/foodand.htm (food supply and agriculture)

  • refer to http://www.beamccowan.com/public1.htm (public health)


Disease and Childbirth, 1832

Scarlet fever is prevalent here. Females, when confined, do not call the assistance of either midwife or surgeon; the reason is they charge too high. So the neighbors assist, and all goes well enough.

Diary of Rev. William Proudfoot, Dec. 2 1832


Scarborough is said to be healthy, but of late there has been some cases of ague. Scarlet fever and whooping cough prevail at present. There are some fatal cases in the former, none as yet in the latter.

Diary of Rev. William Proudfoot, Dec. 9 1832


Cholera, 1834

Mr. Gibson and familie are all well and desires to be remembered to you as also John Muir. Robt. Taket also. Robt Stobo Senior and spouse and a Mrs. Muir from Strathaven [Mary Burns, Mrs. Archibald Muir] are all dead, two of them in one day and one in another of Cholera and there are other two in the same house badly viz George Burns and one of Robt Hamilton's daughters and Mrs. Hamilton but are likely to get better. Jean Stobo has also taken Cholera but is got rather better...

We have in the course of God's Providence lost one of our famlie, our Dear daughter Mary Ann Hunter McC. is no more. She departed this life on Saturday morning the 26th of July of Typhus fiver and Elizabeth and Jean have both had it but thank God they are both better but Willm is just now very ill of collera and wither he will get better or not is known to God only ... this letter I have penned sittin at my son Willm's bedhead just waiting on him ... the cholera is again very sore. God grant that we may all escape it ...

Mrs. McCowan is not well and has lain the most part of this day, what the consequences will be God only knows, may it be favourable for us all is my humble wish and prayer. I hope you will excuse bad write and also bad dite for I am so confused and wuried that I hardly know what I do, not having got much rest for three days and two nights. I am, Dear Sir, your Sincair old friend with I hope a new face, James McCowan.

James McCowan, Springbank, Scarborough , To friends in Goderich, August 20 1834



Motherlessness, 1864

Lines Written On the Death Of the Wife  
Of Mr. Robert McCowan, Scarboro

Hark my friends what solemn sound
Fills the quiet air around
     With its saddening breath
On the tranquil Sabbath eve
What shall bid our spirits grieve,
     'Tis the knell of death

Yes, another soul is free
From the cares which mortals see
     In this vale of tears
Now another spirit soars
To the lofty golden doors
     Of the upper spheres

Angels who on heavenly heights
Watch for saints in upward flight
     Glad to usher in
Open now your shining gate
Welcome to your blest estate
     One redeemed from sin

From a happy earthly home
Elas a faithful mother gone
     To her home above
Seven weeping children left
And a husband kind bereft
     Of a mother's love

Death with swift and fearful stroke
On that peaceful household broke
     With its withering dread
Twelve brief hours of wild distress
Leave scarce time her babes to Jesus
     Ere her life is fled

Free beyond the chilling tide
By the peaceful river side
     Safe from sin and woe
Now she waits to welcome o'er
To that happy shining shore
     Those she loved below

Then why should tears of sorrow flow
However great one loss we know
     To her 'tis endless gain
So let us spend each passing day
That at the last like her we may
     The crown of life obtain

S.G. Blanchard, Teacher at School Section 9, 1864


Painful and Protracted Disease, 1886

Robt. McCowan Sr. on Kingston Road ended this life after a very painful and protracted disease on Sunday last. A large funeral cortege followed the remains to its last resting place on Tuesday to old St. Andrew’s cemetery. Mr. McCowan was only known to be respected, and he leaves a very large circle of sympathizing friends in Scarboro.

Markham Economist, Feb. 4 1886

Robert suffered from kidney stones. As a result, his son, Bob [Robert Jr.] would never drink water unless it was boiled. A big brown teapot filled with boiled water always sat on Hannah’s work table in her pantry, ready for his use.

Margaret Carr, James McCowan Family from 1833, p. 17


The farm had 3 wells -- ours was 52 feet deep, my grandfather’s was 75 feet deep and Uncle Ashley’s was 60 feet deep. The well-water had lots of iron. We never fed iodized salt to the cattle when the barn was on the well-water. We used to put curing salt on the hay to cure it, but this was not iodized salt. After we put the barn on the Township water, we noticed that the veal calves got goitre. That’s when we had to start feeding iodized salt to the cattle -- this prevented the goitre.

Bill McCowan, May 2001



Suicide 1898 and Mental Health

Mrs. Andrew Young of Scarboro’, whose mind is somewhat unbalanced through a severe attack of la grip, wandered to the lake shore on Friday morning between 9 and 10 o’clock, and stepped or fell over the bank, sliding down the almost perpendicular cliff nearly 300 feet. She was found by her anxious husband two hours later, and strange to say, except for a few scratches and bruises, was unhurt.

Undated newsclipping, The Pherrill Scrapbook


Mrs. Sarah M. Young, wife of Mr. Andrew Young, a well known farmer of Scarboro Township , took her life in the Insane Asylum, Toronto on Tuesday morning the 26th ult.  Mrs. Young was suffering from melancholia and had been confined in the asylum some four months. Previous to that she had made an unsuccessful attempt to commit sui­cide by throwing herself over the Scarboro Heights . In view of her suicidal mania extra precautions were constantly taken to prevent a recurrance of the attempt, but on the morning mentioned she evaded the watchers, and tearing a portion of the bed clothing into strips she hanged herself to the iron bed­stead.  Dr. Clark, the superintendant of the Asylum, at once notified the Ontario Government of the occurrence. Coroner Lynd was also notified, but after investigating the circumstances concluded that an inquest was unnecessary, every possible care having been exercised by the officials.

Markham Economist, August 4, 1898, as printed in Scarborough Historical Notes and Comments, V 13 #2, D.B. McCowan, Editor


Will Scott, [the local policeman] was in tonight telling us all about the excitement the other night. A crazy man was running loose on Friday night, scaring the people half to death. He was in Harold’s yard and, dear knows, he might have been squinting through the window at us. He was at Dix’s and J. Cornell’s and got into Palk’s at three or four o’clock and started bursting the doors with a chair. And they all rushed out in their night clothes. Will caught him about eight and he said he was a very respectable man. He was well dressed and has lots of money. He was a railroad engineer. Will said he asked him if they were going to send him to the jail farm or the bug house. He is at the asylum.

Ruth McCowan Letters, April 21 1918



Rheumatic Fever at Holmcrest, ca 1895

While Ruth McCowan was still in public school, she became very ill with rheumatic fever and almost died. Mr. Macdonald, the Minister from St. Andrew’s Church, sang to her all one Saturday night and far into the early morning. He lost his voice completely, and was unable to give his sermon that Sunday morning. The family had given up hope of her living.

However, early one morning, a medical doctor who, with his son, had become an itinerant wanderer and sometimes slept in the McCowan barn, knocked on their door. He said that Billy [Ruth’s uncle Billy McCowan] had told him that Ruth was very ill and that he had something that would help her. He gave her father [Robert] a bottle of medicine with directions how he was to give it to her. He wouldn’t say what was in the bottle, but said it would help Ruth. Luckily her father followed the doctor’s directions, and Ruth started getting better...

Dr. Sisley, their family doctor, tried very hard to persuade the doctor to tell him about the contents of the medicine bottle, but he refused. Dr. Sisley said Ruth had to have her tonsils out as soon as she was well enough. Bob drove her in to the doctor’s office one day in his buggy, and she laid down on his kitchen table. He cut them out then and there without putting her to sleep. Anesthetic obviously was not in common use. Ruth never went back to school...

M. Carr, James McCowan Family from 1833, p. 25


Diphtheria Yet Again at Holmcrest, 1902

St. Andrew’s Manse, Bendale, Jan. 15th 1902
Mr. R. McCowan
My Dear Friends: --

I am sorry to hear that you are having more trouble with diphtheria. I have just heard that both Ruth and Ashley have been taken down with it. Unfortunately I am not able to drive down to see them. I slipped on the oiled hardwood floor and fell violently on the edge of the kitchen stove & so am laid up myself for 8 or 10 days & so cannot drive down to see how you all are. I hope indeed that they are not dangerously ill. And that soon they may be about again. Ruth will surely make a very good woman, seeing that she has so much sickness. “Who the Lord loveth, he chasteneth” Heb 12: 6. Tell both Ruth and Ashley that although I am not able to go down to see them, yet I do not forget them.

May the Lord bless your home & keep you, cause his face to shine upon you all & give you Peace is the wish of your friend.

D.B. Macdonald


St. Andrew’s Manse, Bendale, May 6th 1902
Mr. and Mrs. R. MacCowan
My Dear Friends: --

My heart goes out toward you as I think of your sadness this morning. Sorrow has again swept your hearthstone and dark clouds have gathered around your home and fireside. I do wish I could come to you with the healing value with that message so full of love, grace & hope that has so often before comforted the sorrowing and brought great cheer to the lonely heart...

God Bless your hearts and home

Your friend, D.B. Macdonald



Unplanned Pregnancy, 1916

They were also telling me that Jack McDonald has had his discharge. They don't know why, but he is wearing civilian clothes again. He was married a few days ago much against his will. The lady was going to sue him. So it was a case of “have to”.

Ruth McCowan Letters, October 8 1916



Nutrition and Health Care On the Farm in the ‘20s

I sometimes wonder how we survived back in the 1920's when I was a child, when you compare today’s health standards with those of days gone by. We were fortunate to live in a fairly new house with a bathroom and running water which came from the cistern which got its supply of water from the rain. Our drinking and cooking water we pumped from the well outside. We carried the big pail-full in and it sat on the corner of the pantry table. In the pail was a dipper from which everyone drank. It never occurred to us that the dipper might be covered with germs.

The cistern and septic tank sat side by side underground which by today's standards would probably be a “No-No”, because they were so close to each other.

The first washing machine I remember was a big wringer washer. I believe Mom was still using it when I got married. The last few years we used it, if you touched some parts of it with wet hands, you got a shock which rumbled through your body. It's a wonder someone wasn't electrocuted.

Before refrigerators were invented, some people had an ice-box. The ice-man delivered big squares of ice which kept food cold. We never had an ice-box. We had a dumb waiter. This was several shelves suspended by ropes and a pulley. This was let down to the cellar from the pantry between meals to keep the food cooler.

We kept a few cows to supply milk, cream and butter for three families -- my grandparents, Uncle Ashley’s and us. Aunt Flo did the churning and made the butter. Dad did the milking and separated the milk and cream with a DeLaval separator which was in our cellar. He had to crank it by hand. When we kids were little we had to drink a mug full of warm milk every day as Dad separated. Of course the milk was not pasteurized nor were cows and equipment ever inspected as they are today. We kept our milk for the day in tin honey pails with tight-fitting lids in a washtub full of cold water on the cellar floor.

For breakfast we had hot porridge with brown sugar and sometimes cream -- m--m -- good! Then on Saturday morning we had a dose of epsom salts for a really good clean-out. The epsom salts deal didn’t last too long -- Mom thought it was a little harsh for our young systems.

For a while we kept some pigs -- so then we had our own pork. I remember Mom and Dad down cellar grinding meat in the little meat grinder. I think they made sausage and, of course, headcheese. Mom put slabs of side pork in jars in some brine solution. It was like big thick slabs of bacon and tasted pretty good fried in the winter. But “oh my”, all that fat! Of course, at that time, there was no refrigeration or meat inspections.

As we kids got older, once in a while Dad would bring home fish and chips from the fish store. This was always wrapped in several layers of newspaper to keep it warm. Imagine the germs lurking there when you think of how many hands had touched that newspaper!

In those days there was no Health Care as we have today. You didn’t run to the Doctor for a pill when you had a sore toe. For a tummy-ache you took a dose of castor oil, for a sore throat you gargled with salt and water, for a chest cold you went to bed with a mustard paster on your chest.

Well, in spite of all this, my four brothers and I are still around -- 70 or 80 years later -- and as far as I know, none of us has ever had to be on any special diet for bad stomachs.

Helen (McCowan) Thomson, August 1998

Harold found a big mushroom this morning, ten inches across and weighed three quarters of a pound. It was much the largest I have ever seen. We had a big feast tonight and have felt all right ever since.

Ruth McCowan Letters, July 2 1917


They say good things come in small packages -- well -- little Bill slipped into this world before the Doctor got to the house, with only Dad there to assist (Dec. 21, 1923).

Helen (McCowan) Thomson, 1992, in Bill and Nancy McCowan Fortieth Anniversary Album


Primitive First Aid, 1927

One Saturday morning when I was about 10 years old, I found out what a potent projectile a fist-sized lump of coal could be.

Back in those days before winter set in, my dad hauled coal for our hot water furnace from the local coal yards with the horses and wagon. With the wagon backed up to the cellar window, he shovelled the coal down a chute into the coal bin. My job on this particular morning was to kneel at the bottom of the chute and shovel the coal to the back of the bin. All of a sudden a lump of coal bounced out of the chute, hurtled through the air and struck me on the top of the head. After rubbing the spot, I noticed that my hand was covered with blood. I couldn't get out through the window because of the chute and I couldn't make my dad hear me yell because of the rattle of the coal in the chute. After a couple of minutes, the noise died down and I got his attention. By this time, I must have looked pretty messy with a mixture of blood and coaldust running down my face because, after I had crawled out, he took me to the well, stuck my head under the spout and pumped water all over it.

With the mess washed off, we went around to the back door of the house and called my mother. She brought a cupful of flour and dumped it on the wound and pressed it down with her hand. It stopped the bleeding all right but by night the "bloody flour" had turned into concrete.

Well, the easy part was done. The hard part was getting the patch off. After a few days, my mother figured the wound was healed enough to remove the patch. I had to kneel with my head in a basin of water for a few minutes and then she went to work on it with a comb. This exercise was repeated over and over again. It was a slow and painful process because my hair was all through the patch and every tug of the comb felt as if my hair was coming by the roots.

It took several days to make me look presentable in spite of my yelling and squirming, but finish we did and a week later the whole thing was forgotten -- until now!

            Bob McCowan, 1992


Cigarettes, 1931

When I was sixteen I started smoking. I knew my grandfather would “kill me” (as the saying goes) if he ever found out -- but how was he going to do that? One day a girlfriend and I were driving downtown along Queen Street and, right in front of the Ashbridge House, we were parked beside a street car whose driver had gone into the car barns. I just happened to look up and there was Gran sitting in the window right above me. I quickly hid my cigarette, and I didn't think that he had seen me. However it was the last time I ever saw Gran alive. He was dead within a day or two and I was never quite sure that I hadn’t killed him. At any rate, I stopped smoking for a long while after that. I had thought there wasn’t much chance of him catching me at it while he was alive, but I certainly wasn’t sure of it now that he wasn’t.

                        Margaret Heron Carr, 1990




As usual, you should do additional research, especially on other pages of this web site.

Individual Exercises

1) In his 1834 letter, what is the meaning of James’ term “bad write and also bad dite”?

2) Describe in your own words how James McCowan was feeling that day. Why was he feeling like that?

3) Think about the deaths of Isabella McLeod McCowan and her three infants. Why did they die so young? How did her husband feel at the time of her death? How do you feel? Do your feelings affect your interpretation of the data? Output your analysis to a 100 word essay. Did your feelings affect your essay, that is, your output?

4) Translate Mr. Blanchard’s poem about motherlessness into your own prose, say 100 words.

5) Why do you suppose Robert McCowan Jr. only drank boiled water? Could there have been other reasons? Where did he obtain his water supply?


Class Discussion

1) What does James mean when he says “I am, Dear Sir, your Sincair old friend with I hope a new face, James McCowan”.

2) At 14 years of age, James Archibald McCowan was the eldest of 7 when his mother died. Shortly after his first wife died in 1883, James moved to Manitoba , leaving his 4 very young children with relatives in the Scarborough area. He had a second family, of 5, in Manitoba. He was referred to as a good family man. Discuss.

3) Compare health care today to health care 70 years ago.

4) Discuss “objectivity” and “subjectivity”.


Field Trip! To St. Andrew’s Cemetery

1) Directions from Halbert School to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, 115 St. Andrew’s Road -- North on McCowan Road, jog west on Eglinton then north on Danforth to Lawrence, continue north on McCowan, turn left on St. Andrew’s Road)

2) At the southeast gate to the cemetery, notice the several McCowan gravestones. What do you notice in particular about the first couple of rows of stones?

3) Walk about half-way back through the middle of the cemetery until you begin to see numerous nineteenth century gravestones for the McCowan and Weir families. Conduct a survey of these McCowan and Weir stones. Decide what should be the goal of your survey (eg child mortality). Supplement your survey with other information. Output your findings to a 100 word essay. Include a table of statistics. Analyze the data that you collected. What conclusions can you draw?


The Scarboro Heights Record V14 #2