Laboratories ‘produced life-saving serums against the main war front illnesses,’ writes Susan Goldenberg
On rainy Oct. 25, 1917, in the midst of the First World War, a history-making medical event, little remembered today, occurred at the then-undeveloped north end of North York: the formal opening of facilities to produce serums to “protect the health of soldiers on the war front.”
Under the administration of the University of Toronto, it was called Connaught Antitoxin Laboratories and University Farm and produced life-saving serums against the main war front illnesses of tetanus, meningitis and typhoid fever.
It had great success, protecting thousands of soldiers, but has been overshadowed in history by Connaught’s downtown Toronto facility where insulin was developed 100 years ago this year by a group of Canadians, including Frederick Banting and Charles Best, until then an elusive goal of scientists around the world.
“Connaught” was in honour of the Duke of Connaught, Queen Victoria’s third son, Canada’s governor general from 1911 to 1916. The labs had originated in 1914 in a tiny space in a U of T medical building basement, far too small for its big purpose.
When it was pointed out that the only place to stable tetanus antitoxin-producing horses, essential for a cure, was the boiler room, businessperson/philanthropist Albert E. Gooderham (1881-1935), then vice-president of Gooderham & Worts Distillery, chair of the Ontario Red Cross, and on the university’s board of governors, generously offered to pay for a new facility with stables on spacious grounds.
His real estate agent found a derelict 56-acre farm at North York’s northern limit of Steeles Avenue and Dufferin Street. To prevent being gouged, Gooderham instructed, “Don’t let the owners know I’m interested.”
Horses were inoculated with a minute amount of tetanus, some continuously for as long as two years. They didn’t fall ill because their metabolism produced antibodies. This antitoxin was extracted and made into an immunization serum for humans. A single horse could supply enough antitoxin for 15,000 soldiers over time, a medical miracle.
More types of vaccines were subsequently produced. Connaught was acquired in 1989 by Sanofi Pasteur, a global pharmaceuticals company headquartered in France. The North York “Connaught Campus” is its Canadian centre.
Written by Susan Goldenberg.
Originally published on June 30, 2021, on toronto.com.