Forgotten Doctor’s Story Returns to Prominence

By in Community, Health & Fitness, People, Places, Events, & History

The name FitzGerald has not been associated with Harriston for many years. But it was, and will be again. Over 100 years ago a very prominent family lived in what was then a village, and the son, in time, became world renowned.
The name FitzGerald disappears from town records in 1902, but resurfaced again 108 years later when a heritage sign was unveiled at 88 John Street, South.
Some of the things that happened during those years were not only unknown to the townsfolk, but a mystery to the family as well. A few years ago James FitzGerald, a Toronto based author, tried to unlock the secrets of his father and grandfather. His quest for family history led him to Harriston, and what he found helped to fill in blanks from his own childhood.
Dr. John Gerald FitzGerald, (commonly known as Gerry) was born 1882 to a pharmacist who owned an apothecary on a muddy street in Drayton, Ontario. The rented home is long gone, but the Pharmacy stood where the Heritage Funeral Home is now. Gerald was the first baby baptized in the Drayton United Church.
The senior FitzGerald moved his family to Harriston in 1894. After school, young Gerry helped at his father’s apothecary which was at 23 Elora Street (in the strip between the Collison House and the former Royal Bank.)
John Gerald FitzGerald graduated from Harriston High School, and at 16 was the youngest student ever to enroll at the University of Toronto. He graduated in 1903 but studied, worked, and lectured all over the world. Following his marriage to a London Ontario heiress, he spent a working honeymoon at the Pasteur Institute – a private non-profit foundation in Paris, France dedicated to the study of bacteriology, diseases and vaccines. Its founder, Louis Pasteur made some of the greatest preventative breakthroughs including pasteurization, and vaccines for anthrax (and 80 years later it was the first organization to isolate HIV, the virus causing AIDS).
Back at U. of T. in 1913, Dr. Gerry FitzGerald successfully prepared Canada’s first locally-made rabies vaccine and diphtheria antitoxin. In 1914 he borrowed money from his wife’s inheritance to found U. of T.’s Anti-Toxin Labs, later to become the internationally recognized Connaught Laboratories.
Two of his partners in research were Dr. Frederick Banting (Alliston) and Dr. Charles Best (Nova Scotia). This duo was best known for the discovery of an effective treatment for diabetes – a disease then associated with terrible suffering and slow death. They found that insulin could control the ravages of diabetes. Although Banting was awarded the Nobel Prize for this discovery, he shared the honors with Dr. Best, and maintained that “without FitzGerald there would be no insulin”.
As a youngster working in his father’s apothecary in Harriston, it was soon evident to Gerry that the pills and antidotes were not always curing the sicknesses. His ambition was to stamp out contagious diseases before they spread their murderous ways. His dream was to side-step expensive medications and to manufacture and mass produce defensive drugs, and make them available to everyone – for free. This dream was fulfilled by 1920 when all provinces were distributing, free, a full range of Connaught preventive medicines to the public. Connaught Laboratories became the first learning institution in Canada dedicated to Public Health. Years later Connaught contributed to the world wide distribution of penicillin in the 40’s, and the Salk polio vaccine in the 1950’s. All profits of Connaught were plowed back into bacteriological research.
Unfortunately, after years of overwork, this architect of Canada’s Public Health system suffered from insomnia, migraines, bleeding ulcers, and basically ruined his own health. Dr. J.G. FitzGerald passed away in 1940.
Meanwhile his son, Dr. John (Jack) FitzGerald followed the family footsteps, and he became a specialist in allergy medicine.
FitzGerald never heard his parents talk about his grandfather, Gerald, and his many accomplishments. He grew up not knowing anything about this great man. In mid-life, with a “need to know” attitude for his own sanity, James began a quest that would take him over a decade to decipher, and unravel the silence and mystery surrounding his grandfather.
The Wellington County Museum and Archives led him to Drayton and then to Harriston where he met with historians Judy Tuck, Garry MacDougall and Mark MacKenzie, in addition to home owners Bob and Jane Brown. During ongoing contact over several years the concept of an historical marker was introduced and FitzGerald was very receptive to the idea. That plan came to fruition a few weeks ago when an historical plaque was erected on the lawn of 88 John Street, South, Harriston.
Home owner Bob Brown, a history buff and collector, draped the commemorative plaque with “the Red Ensign”, a one hundred year old flag that would have been flown from homes and public places in the early 1900s.
In unveiling the heritage sign, Wellington County Councillor Mark MacKenzie, revealed the process had been nearly two years in the making as the list of accomplishments, which would have originally filled a 4’ x 8’ sheet of plywood, had to be edited down to the sign text. “Heritage is our past residents,” and MacKenzie was excited that the plaque had been sponsored by the Town of Minto Council, the Harriston Historical Society and the Sanofi (Connaught) Institute. During her congratulatory remarks Deputy Mayor Judy Dirksen said how important it is to record little tidbits of history as they occur. An emotional James FitzGerald was very pleased that there is, at last, permanent recognition of his grandfather.
A reception followed around the corner in the Parish Hall; a fitting choice as the historical family had attended the Anglican Church while living in Harriston.
The inhabitants of 88 John Street, South have mostly been of some medical background including the pharmacist, a nurse, doctor and dentist. Bob Brown, current resident, is a microbiologist. Ironically, at age 13 Bob read the biography of Louis Pasteur and became fascinated by the world of bacteriology. He graduated from the University of Guelph and one of his first positions was at the Palmerston Public Health Laboratory (on the grounds of the former Midwestern Regional Centre).
Although Bob and Jane had researched the history of their house, realized there had been a Pharmacist, and knew where the initials are carved in the windowsill, the significance of Dr. FitzGerald was lost on them until the arrival of James.
James Fitzgerald has written a book which unravels the mystery surrounding his family. A slide presentation and book signing was held at the Wellington County Museum and Archives at Elora. FitzGerald was introduced by Barbara Hazlett, whose father had worked at Connaught Labs when she was a girl, so she had personally known both Dr. Gerald and his son Dr. Jack FitzGerald.
Representatives from several area Historical Societies were in attendance to hear the presentation and obtain an autographed copy. The book “What Disturbs Our Blood” is a difficult read for anyone not familiar with Latin or bacteriological terms. It reveals shocking information on antiquated treatment and ortures to the human body. Hopefully the suicidal stigma of the 1940’s can be erased in order to shine a light on a neglected piece of Canadian History.
FitzGerald’s book was one of five nominated for the prestigious Writers’ Trust of Canada Award for non-fiction. A week after the Harriston plaque unveiling, an official gala was held in Toronto to announce the winner of the $25,000 prize. James FitzGerald was the recipient.
After receiving a congratulatory message on behalf of the Harriston Historical Society, FitzGerald emailed back to say how thrilled he was, commenting, “If my Grandfather could only see me now!”