A Multi-Passionate Man of Medicine: Towards a Broader Understanding of the Life, Times, and Work of Dr. Peter Bryce

By: Dr. Adam J. Green

Dr. Adam J. Green

Contributing Historian

Dr. Adam J. Green is a trained historian specializing in Canadian identities, research methodology, and comparative histories. He earned a doctorate in History and Canadian Studies from the University of Ottawa and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University, along with degrees in Developmental Psychology and Evaluation. Adam’s academic journey has included teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels at the University of Ottawa and Bishop’s University, and positions as an Adjunct Professor and a Research Fellow at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University. Adam has been published on a range of topics, including Aboriginal history, Canadian- American relations, the digital humanities, and the history of Canadian identities. His Master’s thesis explored the life and work of Dr. Peter Bryce, and he has engaged in a range of scholarly, journalistic, and public activities centred on Dr. Bryce in the two decades since. Once a full-time academic, Adam currently works as a Director of Policy Development and Stakeholder Engagement in the federal public service. He lives in Ottawa, where he also takes part in a range of volunteer activities in his local community, notably in the service of furthering children’s education.

One the most common questions modern observers ask about Dr. Peter Bryce’s relentless reporting on the abysmal state of the residential school system is this: why did he persist when so few others did? What was it about Bryce’s experiences, mindset and philosophy that led him to conceptualize his work so differently than most of his contemporaries? This article attempts to explore some answers to these questions. Along the way, it draws inspiration and lessons from none other than Bryce himself, unpacking and examining a wider swath of his life and work in order to understand what informed his outlook more than is normally the case.

We can begin by noting that Bryce worked in a time before the kind of professional hyper-specialization that characterizes 21st century scientific inquiry was the norm; indeed, the late 19th and early 20th century saw conscious, organized efforts in multiple areas to quantify, define and defend specialized expertise, ones which emphasized education, scientific standards, meritocracy, and objectivity[1]. As that process was taking shape, however, successful professionals in Bryce’s time did not confine themselves to merely diving deeper than their predecessors, nor did they limit their production to the most finely-sliced, micro-specialty of their field. Rather, people of means and opportunity tended to contribute to a much more horizontal range of endeavours: a doctor might also write fiction; an engineer might also engage in work with plants; even the notorious Duncan Campbell Scott, who rose to highest echelons of the public service, was a nationally-recognized poet.

Bryce’s education was far more multi-faceted than one might imagine, given his career in public health. Bryce actually started his education in geology, an area of study which would leave an imprint in terms of his surveying and research skills. He then went to Paris to study with foundational figures in neurology, psychology and psychiatry as well as the pioneers in anti-septic surgery and the development of vaccination[2] – the cutting edge of what had coalesced into the Germ Theory of disease.

Having been appointed as Secretary of Ontario’s Provincial Board of Health in 1882 and, with Premier Oliver Mowat, having written Ontario’s 1884 Public Health Act, Bryce’s horizontal range of knowledge meant he could, as a public health official, deploy what we might recognize as a ‘modern’ understanding of how to counter the spread of communicable diseases. While characterized as far more aggressive than was the norm at the time,[3] Bryce employed a complex, multi-faceted approach to managing severe local outbreaks, one which – crucially – was not only responsive, but pre-emptive: schools could be ordered closed, public gatherings banned, transport services suspended, and police placed at key entry and exit points into a given community to monitor and control the movement of anyone infected.[4] Bryce would then bring in medical students to conduct vaccinations, disinfect and fumigate all infected houses, and distribute pamphlets to discredit local anti-vaccination campaigns.

Bryce’s ability to embrace horizontal thinking was evident in other areas of his work, and not only in his crucial reports on the state of Canada’s residential school system. For example, Dr. Bryce equally applied his philosophical paradigm to Canada’s new immigrants. In the early 20th century, Canada’s immigration levels were the highest the country has ever seen. In 1913 alone, Canada admitted more than 400,000 new immigrants to Canada, and this was at a time when the country’s population was only around 7.5 million people. (In other words, roughly 5% of the population had just arrived, whereas in 2021, same number of immigrants—400,000—amounted to roughly 0.1% of the population.) Of note, between 1900 and 1921, more than 800,000 non-British, non-French immigrants arrived, flocking in part to the larger cities, which led to a torrent of fear and panic amongst the more established British and French-origin populations. But Bryce countered with evidence, as was his strong suit: while he agreed that Canadian cities in particular were “spreading disease, crime, and discontent” throughout Canadian society, he took care and time to explain that it was not because of the immigrants themselves, but because of the ambient (and pre-existing) conditions of the cities into which they had recently arrived.

In a 1907 speech at the Toronto branch of the Empire Club, Bryce challenged conventional assumptions and ethnocentric biases. In speaking about Jewish immigrants, for example—who would have straddled contemporary categories of “desirable” immigrants—he noted:

As to whether they create a worse condition than existed before, depends upon certain facts. The slum is due to the grasping landlord, on the one hand, and the puerile civic administration on the other. If slums exist, they are not caused by the immigrant, but the immigrant comes into the condition, which has already created or made the slums possible.

He also added relevant comparable information from the U.S., like that from Chicago where there was “desire on the part of the landlords to cover every foot of their ground-space with large tenements, without sufficient provision for light and ventilation” and the crafting of short-sighted policy by city officials “which permits the growth of housing conditions, for whose improvements years of agitation and vigorous effort will be necessary.” Bryce added: “The histories of many other cities show that the forces which built their slums are almost exactly those at work here. A radical change cannot be expected without steady pressure, and a steady cultivation of public opinion.” In response, several Members of the Club publicly called for changes to immigration policy to keep out the “undesirable immigrants” at the root of all this crime, disease and discontent, a call which unfortunately found great resonance in Canadian general society[5]. The stated commentary of Empire Club guests included statements like “While Dr. Bryce’s remarks do not touch upon the question, I had hoped he would have said something in connection with the immigration of undesirable people into this country.” Another noted that the statistics were supposedly clear: the British came with less disease. Bryce, from his position as Chief Medical Officer of Canada, countered again, noting that it was the prevailing cultural assumptions about the health of the British that skewed those numbers. While most non-British immigrants were fully inspected, “an Englishman comes up to the inspector who observes him at a distance of a few feet in a good light. He has to judge, in that approach, what kind of a fellow he is. If he is an Englishman, is generally of ruddy complexion, from staying out of doors, and even a sick man…” he generally got a pass on account of his national/ethnic origin.

Bryce’s point—largely missed by the Empire Club crowd —was that given the high immigration levels, governments needed to drive reform in living conditions in the inner city, increase the availability of preventative care, and raise the general understanding among the population of basic medical knowledge so that they could understand the process of how disease spread at the ground level. 

Bryce had studied in Paris at a dynamic time when ideas around medical theory and the role of public health were exploding – neurology at the Salpêtrière public hospital under Jean-Martin Charcot (considered a foundational figure in neurology, psychology, and psychiatry), Joseph Lister (a pioneer in antiseptic surgery) in surgical techniques, and all immediately in the wake of the discoveries of Louis Pasture only three years earlier. Moreover, the quintessential Victorian scientific drive would bring specific and applicable purpose to the surveying and research skills he had learned in Geology. As such, Bryce’s overall philosophy of public health was therefore ubiquitous in his approach to all the areas under his charge, including his groundbreaking work on Canada’s residential school system.

First, there was the duty of the vigilant medical professional in identifying risk factors, treating disease, and educating the public on how to prevent their spread. Second came the government’s responsibility to act upon the recommendations of physicians, expending money in the proper places at the proper times. And third, there was the public’s responsibility to heed doctors’ warnings, and to insist that their governments enact the necessary preventative measures, and to help enforce health standards in their local communities using their numbers, votes, and taxes to do so. Bryce’s approach to public health relied on all three components, and each in turn relied on scientific evidence as their chief advocate (and real-world demonstrator of lack of action).  

This philosophical approach to the government’s duty of care and the need to more broadly educate the public on this more holistic view of health made an incredibly important contribution to the public good. Indeed, Bryce left behind an astonishing publication record: in addition to his government reports and self-published pamphlet of 1922, Bryce wrote 27 articles for the American Association of Public Health (and its successor, The Journal of Public Health), co-authored the Ontario Public Health Act; served as President of the American Public Health Association and a member of the Royal Sanitary Institute of Great Britain; and penned a full-length work of fiction entitled The Illumination of Joseph Keeler, Esq. or On the Land! (a story of high prices).

Bryce also wrote works dealing with what today we would call environmentalism—river conservation, the links between climate and health, the safety and reliability of the water supply, food safety such as the milk supply, refrigeration, meat inspection safety, animal health, including municipal cattle standards and the outbreak of disease amongst horses in Ontario—in addition to works about immigration —including civic responsibility for integration, housing, poverty, rates of mental illness among, and the influence on social values as a result of waves of new immigrants—ventilation and transportation standards on ocean-going vessels, and early studies on the effects of narcotics. Beyond this, Bryce’s most widely-read piece during his own lifetime would likely have been a 50-page pamphlet he produced with the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) when he was working for the Province of Ontario, which highlighted natural and geologic features with potential health benefits. The pamphlet was reprinted in at least nine editions between 1898 and 1904.[6]

While he was fired from the public service in 1921, Bryce never stopped pushing back the frontiers of public health and medicine. In the early 1920s, following the return of World War One veterans, Bryce published his “Relations of Society to the Drug Habit,” in which he advocated for a more concerted effort to understand the science behind drug addiction, tossing aside the contemporary tendency in his day to simply write off addicts as both genetically predisposed and beyond the reach of medical science. Bryce co-sponsored a resolution, published in the American Journal of Public Health, calling for the American Public Health Association to promote and sponsor research on addiction in a formal way, including the study of non-genetic factors, such as societal influences and environmental circumstances.[7] In this and so many other ways explored above, Dr. Bryce built upon his scientific and philosophical bases to promote areas of medical research that would be very familiar to us in the early 21st century. 

Peter Bryce’s legacy in the first decades of the 21st century has undoubtedly (and rightfully) centered upon his groundbreaking and irreplaceable contributions to the understanding of the conditions of the Canadian residential school system. When we dig a little deeper, however, we understand that Peter Bryce, the doctor, civil servant, researcher and contributor to scientific and public discourse, was above all a diversely educated and conscientious professional. He applied novel techniques and multi-disciplinary observations which could help Canadians look past their cultural and social biases to see what the evidence told them – and us – about marginalized groups, including Indigenous Peoples, immigrants, drug addicts, and the working poor. The focus of my next piece will center on applying this lens to the present and the past, and sorting out the reasonable standards to which we can hold both ourselves and our predecessors in terms of bias and cultural assumptions.

[1] The process generally required determining qualifications, identifying jurisdictions, establishing monopolies over that jurisdiction, and then backstopping scientific inquiry to assess expertise. As this iterative process took time, effort and organization, ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ both helped build up their own field, and were simultaneously less constricted by them. Exploring the divergent paths of medicine vs. public health is instructive here; see Paul Starr, “Professionalization and Public Health: Historical Legacies, Continuing Dilemmas,” Public Health Management Practice, Nov 2009 and A.R. Ruis and Robert N. Golden, “The Schism Between Medical and Public Health Education: A Historical Perspective,”Academic Medicine, Vol 83, No.12 / Dec 2008 for examples.

[2] As covered below, Bryce studied neurology at the Palpêtrière public hospital under Jean-Martin Charcot and Joseph Lister, whose work on antiseptics would enter the public consciousness through “Listerine”, the product named after him.

[3] See Dr. Christopher J. Rutty’s “Dr. Peter H. Bryce: Bold & Relentless Public Health Pioneer” article elsewhere in this project for a deeper dive.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Peter Bryce, 1907a, “Civic Responsibility and the Increase of Immigrants,” The Empire Club of Canada Addresses, January 31, pp.186-97

[6] Peter Bryce, 1989 (1st Edition) 1904 (9th Edition), Climate and Health Resorts of Canada: being a short description of the Chief Features of the Climate of the different Geographical Divisions of Canada, and References to some of their Chief Health Resorts, Montreal, Canadian Pacific Railway.

[7] Bryce 1922 “Editorial,” American Journal of Public Health 22: 180