“The Good Doctor”: Peter H. Bryce, Education, Public Health & Family Legacies

By: Dr. Christopher J. Rutty

Contributing Historian

Christopher J. Rutty, Ph.D., is a professional historian with special expertise on the history of medicine, public health, infectious diseases and biotechnology in Canada. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Toronto in the Department of History, with his dissertation on the history of poliomyelitis in Canada. For his Ph.D. Christopher was supervised by the late Professor Michael Bliss, author of the seminal book, The Discovery of Insulin, which serves as the foundational source for much of the insulin story he has developed for the “Insulin 100” project. Since completing his Ph.D. in 1995, Dr. Rutty has provided a wide range of historical research, writing, consulting and creative services to a variety of clients through his company, Health Heritage Research Services. Dr. Rutty holds an Adjunct Professor appointment in the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. He has also curated prominent historical exhibits, including on the discovery of insulin, most notably for the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine to mark the 90th anniversary of the discovery. Dr. Rutty has also published several articles on the history of insulin, as well as books on the history of public health in Canada, the history of the Canadian Nurses Association, the history of St. Mary’s General Hospital in Kitchener, ON, as well as numerous articles in print and online on the history of polio and the history of vaccines.

On August 3, 1876, Peter H. Bryce, along with his brothers and father, George Bryce, Sr., were among a gathering of well-dressed spectators at the A. Wallace Ellis general store and telegraph office in Mount Pleasant, Ont. They had gathered to witness Alexander Graham Bell receive the first telephone call between two communities. It was a momentous event for the small village of Mount Pleasant, Peter Bryce’s birthplace, as well as for nearby Brantford, where the call originated. It was also a momentous event for the world.[i] For Peter Bryce, who turned 23 two weeks later, this first test of Bell’s telephone technology was just one of the many transformative developments in science, technology, medicine, and public health that he witnessed, directly or indirectly, during his lifetime. Indeed, Bryce lived in a time of dramatic change.

At the time, Bryce — author of the 1922 pamphlet, “The Story of a National Crime,” which documented neglect of Indigenous children in Canada’s residential schools — had just graduated with a BA from the University of Toronto and was about to begin a MA degree, the main requirement for which was completing a thesis within a year. He then spent the next three years in medical school, earning a M.B. degree from the University of Toronto in 1880. It would not be an overstatement to say that education was Bryce’s key motivation and clearly part of his family’s culture and values. In a January 20, 1920, profile, the Brantford Expositor noted that Bryce’s father “was a Scot from Stirling.” “The Scottish trait for education, even to the point of sacrifice and hard work, was never better exemplified than in the Bryce family.” [ii]

Peter Bryce’s graduation record, University of Toronto Yearbook, “Yearbook 1886/87”.  Rowsell & Hutchison, UofTArchives.

George and Catherine Bryce were from Perthshire, Scotland, and had arrived in Mount Pleasant in 1843, where he set up a blacksmith business. They joined the local United Presbyterian Church congregation and had seven children. Peter went to the University of Toronto, “with his own assistance, and that given by his father.” By 1920, the Expositor continued, “he has the reputation of being one of the best educated men in Canada…informed on every conceivable subject, according to those who know him well, although he is intensely devoted to his own profession of medicine.” [iii]

George Bryce, Sr.
Image courtesy of the Bryce Family.

The Bryce family’s passion for education was evident in Peter’s older brother, George Jr. (1844-1931), who played a major role in building the new province of Manitoba. Having studied theology at Knox College, at the University of Toronto, and then ordained in the Presbyterian Church in 1871, George Jr. moved to Winnipeg to establish a college and set up a church for a new Presbyterian community. He also helped build the University of Manitoba, and Manitoba College, as well as many churches and the Winnipeg Public Library. He also served as Winnipeg’s first school inspector. Known as a “gentleman historian,” he wrote A Short History of the Canadian People, first published in 1887. In it, he took a broader, more population-centred approach to relating Canadian history, in contrast to the traditional “drum and trumpet” style that focused on wars and treaties. He highlighted the contributions of various immigrant groups as well as Indigenous peoples. Indeed, George Jr’s perspectives anticipated many of the qualities for which his younger brother would become widely known. [iv]

George Bryce, Jr.
Image courtesy of the Bryce Family

Unlike George Jr., Peter’s calling was to medicine, and especially public health. He demonstrated a strong missionary-type drive that, in the religious context, was also common among the Bryce family. As the Expositor profile highlighted, one of Dr. Bryce’s four sons was a missionary in India. Another son was a doctor in the west, a third served as a professor at Macdonald College in Quebec, while the fourth worked as an assistant engineer in Ottawa. The article also noted that both of Bryce’s daughters attended university, and one graduated.

Bryce’s medical education was built as much on his passion for the arts, literature and history and his skills as a writer as it was on his knowledge of medicine and the sciences. While immersed in his medical studies at the University of Toronto, he was a member of the University College Literary and Scientific Society, which, beginning in October 1879, published a weekly newspaper, The White and Blue. Bryce’s name appears in several editions, including the November 29, 1879, issue. That issue had a news item about the Society’s fifth meeting. The article was titled, “Toronto School of Medicine” and noted that after the general business of the meeting, the first item of the evening’s program was “an essay by P.H. Bryce, M.A., which was well received.” [v]

The January 24, 1880, issue of The White and Blue included another “Toronto School of Medicine” article that noted P.H. Bryce, as a graduate in arts, was now attending medical lectures. “A case of nine first-class microscopes reached the school a short time ago,” the article began. “This is a step in the right direction and means that this school is determined not to be out-done by any other medical institution in the Dominion. Everyone knows the immense value of a good microscope in the examination of the minute organisms of nature. It is decidedly of more importance to the pathologist in his studies on diseased states.” It was a time of significant progress for medical education in Toronto with a new curriculum shifting from didactic learning to a more practical and clinical system.[vi]

Shortly after completing his M.B., Bryce consolidated his medical education during a trip to Scotland, London, and Paris, over the fall and winter of 1880/81. The trip began with meeting relatives in Stirling, Scotland, where Bryce enjoyed being a tourist. While in Scotland, he spent time at the University of Edinburgh and passed exams that earned him the prestigious “Licensure of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeon,” which added the LRCPS designation after his name. Bryce then “spent a few fruitful months” of practical study with Prof. Thomas Annadale, who had succeeded Joseph Lister, a pioneering surgeon, inventor of antiseptic surgery and proponent of preventive medicine. Bryce also spent time in the medical wards of the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh before heading to Paris via London. Bryce later wrote an account of his travels and studies, titled “A Winter in Paris Fifty Years Ago,” published in the May, 1931, issue of the Canada Lancet and Practitioner medical journal. He recounted how he travelled alone and went out of his way to learn French, especially medical terminology, and attended free lectures in Paris medical schools as well as clinics in the city’s hospitals. [vii]

The winter in Paris gave Bryce a front row seat to an especially progressive time in medicine, science, and research. Louis Pasteur was in the city, giving a series of lectures about his experiments on immunizing sheep against anthrax, a key breakthrough soon followed by his discovery of a life-saving vaccine against rabies. Meanwhile, “the germs in the free air of fields, street air and hospital wards were being counted at Mont Souris observatory by [Pierre] Miquel,” a pioneer of aerobiology.[viii] Bryce attended lectures on tuberculosis by Prof. Sigismond Jaccoud, who laid out “his views on what was not yet proved by Koch to be a zymotic disease till two years later.”[ix] (In 1882, Robert Koch isolated the tubercule bacteria and proved it was the cause of tuberculosis.) Bryce also attended lectures about diphtheria, a deadly respiratory disease that mostly affected children, the incidence of which was sharply rising in growing urban centres in Europe and North America. In 1878, the disease had raised alarms when it struck the royal family. Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Alice, as well as her family, were infected with diphtheria, which caused two deaths.[x] Diphtheria, like tuberculosis, was the focus of intense study, leading to the identification of the causative bacteria, the distinctively club-shaped Corynebacterium diphtheria, by Edwin Klebs in 1883. 

Besides learning about breakthroughs in infectious disease, Bryce attended lectures given by Prof. Jean-Martin Charcot about nervous diseases and their pathology. One of the world’s pioneers of neurology, Charcot’s work shaped the developing fields of neurology and psychology. To Bryce, Charcot’s “lectures were delightful and stimulated the student to search for the truth about mind in relation to the Nervous System as nothing else could.” “Of all the courses,” he noted, “I found nothing has since seemed to me so valuable.”[xi] While in Paris, Bryce attended lectures and clinics on sexually transmitted diseases, especially syphilis, and eye diseases. He also took a special course in pathology that used the microscope, and another in which it was shown how epileptic seizures could be produced in animals by irritating peripheral nerves, and thus illustrating the cause of convulsions in children.

In recalling that trip 50 years earlier, Bryce wrote, “Although going as a sight-seer to Paris, I became so attracted by its medical opportunities for study that I can truly say that in all my student years I never studied with greater enthusiasm or greater satisfaction. It seemed as if the opportunities for research and study were inexhaustible.” Yet Bryce also emphasized that “to anyone who had any historical, literary or artistic tastes, Paris became a treasure-house.” He spent his Sunday afternoons viewing the modern art in a museum near where he was staying, and he also studied the ancient masters exhibited in the Louvre. 

Katherine (“Kate”) Lynde Pardon-Bryce (1854-1931). Ottawa Citizen, March 16, 1931,

When Bryce returned home, he set up a general medical practice in Guelph, Ont., where he’d worked as Professor of Science (Chemistry) at the newly established Guelph College. (During his B.A. at the University of Toronto, he won an award for an essay on the Geology of the Grand River, which flowed through Guelph.) While teaching at the College, Bryce met Katherine (“Kate”) Lynde Pardon, a teacher with whom he shared the same birthdate, August 17, although Kate was a year younger. Peter and Kate also chose August 17 as their wedding date in 1882. They were married in Whitby, Ont., where Kate was born and raised.[xii]

As he built his medical practice, Bryce closely followed the latest scientific developments in microbiology and bacteriology. He also found himself drawn into a small circle of other Ontario physicians passionate about these same discoveries and their application to both public health and preventive medicine. Key members of this group, especially Dr. Edward Playter, publisher of Canada’s first public health journal, were lobbying the Ontario government to establish a provincial board of health. In 1879, their efforts led to the appointment of a select committee of the legislature to consider the question of better organizing public health in the province. Bryce’s education and especially his unique first-hand knowledge of cutting-edge of public health science, led to his appointment as Secretary to the Provincial Board of Health of Ontario in April 1882.[xiii]

With this new position, the Bryces moved to Toronto after their wedding. Bryce re-located his general practice to an office at Spadina Ave. and College Street and further upgraded his medical education at the University of Toronto, earning an M.D. degree in 1886. However, his growing workload as the Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health forced him to close his practice in 1890. In 1892, Peter Bryce’s responsibilities as a civil servant further increased when he became Ontario’s deputy director registrar in charge of vital statistics. Twelve years later, he moved to the federal government to begin a public health career that led him to call out the mistreatment and neglect of Indigenous children.

* * *

In his long public health career within the Ontario and federal governments, Bryce had focused his attention on the control and prevention of tuberculosis perhaps more than any other disease. TB, in fact, had stalked his family, first claiming the life of his sister, Katherine (“Kate”) Bryce in 1876 when she was 17 years of age, and then later his son, Henderson, a physician and surgeon, who died of the disease on New Year’s Eve, 1931, at age 42. For Bryce, his son’s death followed closely the deaths of his wife Kate and his brother, George Jr., who had had a long struggle with dementia. 

Obituary for Katherine Lynde Pardon-Bryce, Ottawa Journal, March 17, 1931.

Despite these family tragedies, Bryce remained active intellectually, focusing his attention on history through involvement with the Canadian Historical Association, with which his brother George had been closely involved. He had a particular interest in the history of public health in Canada and had written several articles about it and wanted to publish more on the topic. In September, 1931, he attended the Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association, held in Montreal, where his friends were delighted to see him, apparently in excellent health and full of plans. In December, 1931, Bryce wrote to Dr. John G. FitzGerald, director of the University of Toronto’s School of Hygiene and Connaught Laboratories, outlining plans for a collaboration on the publication of a history of public health in Ontario during the previous 50 years. [xiv]

 Peter Bryce (sitting centre with hat and dog), surrounded by his family in Ottawa, 1927. Image courtesy of the Bryce Family.

However, such plans were not to be as Dr. Peter Bryce died suddenly at sea on January 15, 1932, at age 79, while en route to the Caribbean, where he had planned to spend some time collecting vital statistics from various islands before commencing the history project. Dr. FitzGerald wrote Peter Bryce’s obituary for the Canadian Public Health Journal: “The early reports of the Provincial Board of Health of Ontario, which were prepared by Doctor Bryce, will always constitute one of the finest and most enduring memorials of his industry and zeal on behalf of public health in the Province of Ontario. These little known and little read volumes, are truly a very real source of information for the student of public health.”[xv]
As his grandson Andy Bryce concluded in a March 4, 2017, blog post, “It’s easy to look at his portrait with the stiff white collar and walrus moustache and think of him as old-fashioned. But nothing could be further from the truth – he was on the cutting edge of medicine and science at a time when change was in the air.”[xvi]

[i] Sharon Jaeger, “The Work of Our Hands” Mount Pleasant, Ontario, 1799-1899: A History (Heritage Mount Pleasant, 2004), p. 213-16;
[ii] “P.H. Bryce, M.D., Brant and Brantford Born Who Made Mark Elsewhere,” Brantford Expositor, Jan 20, 1920.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] George Bryce, A Short History of the Canadian People (London: 1887),; Shannon Conway, “George Bryce and Anglo-Canadian Identity, 1880s to 1910s,” Manitoba History 86 (Spring 2018): 12-22; Adam J. Green, “Humanitarian, M.D.: Dr. Peter H. Bryce’s Contributions to Canadian Federal Native and Immigration Policy, 1904-1921,” M.A. Thesis, Department of History, Queen’s University, 1999,
[v] “Toronto School of Medicine,” The White and Blue, Nov. 29, 1879, p. 4.
[vi] “Toronto School of Medicine,” The White and Blue, Jan. 24, 1880, p. 4,
[vii] Peter H. Bryce, “A Winter in Paris Fifty Years Ago,” The Canada Lancet and Practitioner 76 (5) (May 1931): 135-39.
[viii] Ibid., p. 138-39.
[vix] Ibid., p. 136.
[x] “The Death of Princess Alice: Diphtheria – The Kiss of Death,” The Sanitary Journal 3 (11) (Jan. 1879). p. 384.
[xi] Bryce, “A Winter in Paris Fifty Years Ago,” p. 137.
[xii] Maureen K. Lux, “Peter Henderson Bryce,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol XVI (19311940),; Green, “Humanitarian, M.D.,” p. 20.
[xiii] Paul A. Bator, “Edward Playter,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol XIII (1901-1910),; John G. FitzGerald, “Doctor Peter H. Bryce,” Canadian Public Health Journal 23 (2) (Feb. 1931): 88-91.
[xiv] FitzGerald, “Doctor Peter H. Bryce,” p. 90.
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] Ibid.