Reflections: Promoting health services in Perth County schools

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Ellen Thomas

Stratford-Perth Archives

Local public health services administration for Ontario was established in 1833 when the legislature of Upper Canada passed an act allowing local municipalities “to establish boards of health to guard against the introduction of malignant, contagious and infectious disease in this province.” However, the first countywide health unit — established by Stormont, Dundas, Glengarry and Prescott — wasn’t introduced until 1934. At the time, though, there were 800 local boards of health and 700 medical officers. In 1945, the Public Health Act was amended so that provincial grants could be issued for the establishment of health units. By the end of 1945, there were six health units in Ontario but, by the end of 1950, that number had grown to 25 county and 12 municipal health units.

In 1944, Perth County started an initiative to promote health services in schools, and created a “County-Wide Plan for the Protection of Children.” A huge banner headline on Sept. 2, 1944, read: “Perth Schools Have New Health Service.” It goes on to read:

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“Opening of elementary schools in Perth County next Tuesday will mark the introduction of a health service in the county, designed to protect the children against disease and correct defects that would lead to ill health in later life.

“The new service, initiated by Perth County council is in charge of three public health nurses, who will visit 119 schools periodically and inspect the children.

By the end of the year, each rural child will have had as thorough an examination as it is possible for a nurse to give. Corrective measures will be prescribed to remedy any defects which have been discovered.

In charge of the new service as senior county nurse is Mrs. Gertrude Purcell, who was public nurse in Stratford for several years until her appointment to the county post was made last May.

Assisting Mrs. Purcell as junior nurses are Miss Mae Haviland, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Haviland, (Stratford), and Miss Eva Copeland, Listowel.

Mrs. Purcell and Miss Haviland have their headquarters in the courthouse here. Miss Copeland will work from Listowel.

Within the first two weeks after school opens, the nurses hope to visit every town, village and rural school included in the service, and to examine about 3,200 children.

The plan applies to both public and separate schools. In addition to all rural and village schools, pupils in Listowel and Mitchell schools will also be visited. The service does not include St. Marys, as that town has its own public health nurse.

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On the nurses’ first visit, rapid inspections will be made to make sure that there are no communicable diseases in schools. Questionnaires will be distributed to the students on which their parents are asked to record diseases, immunizations and other details. Health cards will be prepared for the children in the last two weeks of the month.

After the first visit, the nurses hope to visit each school at least once every six months…

Through the large number of military rejections, the war has made Canadians aware of physical weaknesses in young people which might have been prevented, Mrs. Purcell pointed our Friday.

One of the chief purposes of the new health service is to remedy these defects before they become permanent.

By the end of the year, the children will all have had a complete examination. Weight, height, hearing, vision, teeth and throats will be tested, and steps will be taken to correct any defects which are found. An immunization program is also planned.

Through detection of disease and emphasis on good health habits, the children will have health protection superior to anything they have ever had before in the county. In cases where defects are detected the nurses will follow up with home visits.”

Here we see Gladys Leith’s (Swanson), Hamlet public school Grade 3 class from the 1943-44 school year. The caretaker, Mr. Grant, is on the left. This photo is from the collection of the Stratford-Perth Archives.

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Soon after the article copied above was published, National Immunization Week was announced in the Mitchell Advocate. In 1944, children were being immunized against diphtheria, smallpox and whooping cough. Through vaccinations, smallpox was globally eradicated in 1979. While diphtheria is extremely rare and there hasn’t’ been a case of polio in Canada in 20 years, unfortunately, between 1,000 and 3,000 Canadians still contract whooping cough (pertussis) each year. A “thank you” goes out to our public health unit!

The Stratford-Perth Archives is once again open for in-person research by appointment. Service by phone and email is still an option. But if you’re ready, please contact us to set up appointments to use the collections or to meet with the archivist to discuss possible donations of archival material. We can be reached at 519-271-0531ext. 259 or archives@perthcounty.ca.

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