U of T’s Gage Building Celebrates 100 Years

February 12/2015

James Scott is described as a “throwback scientist” by some of his colleagues.

As a public health microbiologist, Scott’s appreciation for legacy knowledge is crucial, given that history is frequently the key to sorting through a pile of unpronounceable Latin names to determine which name applies to which bug.

The history buff flexed his muscle as host of the Gage Building’s 100th Anniversary at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health on February 10.

“Understanding and celebrating history helps us connect our contemporary work to communities of the past and find inspiration in the process,” said James Scott, Head of the School’s Division of Occupational and Environmental Health, who has studied and worked in the Gage Building for more than 20 years.

“Reflecting on the scientists whose labs occupied the building long before I was born helps me hold myself to a standard that honours their legacy.”

More than 75 faculty, staff, students, alumni, partners and descendants of Sir William James Gage, the Building’s benefactor and namesake, attended the celebration.

“Sir William Gage was a pioneer who had a strong influence on public health in Ontario and Canada,” said Howard Hu, Dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“Through his philanthropy and commitment, he built early infrastructure and fueled the innovative thinking that underpinned Canada’s public health response to tuberculosis.”

Gage was not a physician, yet his ambition and foresight allowed Toronto to emerge as an early global leader in the treatment and prevention of tuberculosis (TB). But why did this publisher — who left U of T’s medical school in the 1860s to pursue a career in publishing — devote considerable time and resources to the study and combat of TB?

Legend has it that in his youth he knew a blacksmith who was the sole survivor of a family of 14; his siblings and parents all died from the disease. Then, in 1890, the death of the youngest son of Gage’s close friend Hart Massey inspired Gage to devote considerable time and personal wealth to the establishment of TB sanatoria to care for the sick, and preventive strategies designed to protect the healthy.

In 1911, Gage donated $100,000 to build a headquarters for the National Sanatorium Association at 223 College Street, which today is home to an internationally-recognized cluster of faculty dedicated to air health effects in outdoor and indoor environments.

Gage’s keen interest in providing sanatoria for those suffering the disease arose from the observations of medical opinion leaders at the time that fresh air, moderate exercise and a nutritious diet greatly improved health and well-being. This pivotal influence of environment on health remains a central theme in public health that rings true today.

Gage didn’t just fund infrastructure. He also supported prevention efforts by investing in public health nurses who ran community outreach activities.  These nurses educated families about the dangers and proper care for tuberculosis patients and conducted free screening.

As a result, TB rates in Toronto dropped drastically and by the 1970s, the era of tuberculosis was considered history.  Then, from 1971 to 1994, the Gage Research Institute was established with National Sanatorium Association, U of T, and the Toronto Western Hospital as partners, with a focus on air health effects.

The partnership was reconfigured as the Gage Occupational and Environmental Health Unit in 1995 to include St. Michael’s Hospital and the Department of Community Medicine. With the re-establishment of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health in 2009, this cluster of faculty formed the core of the School’s Division of Occupational & Environmental Health.

Today, researchers in the division are studying air health effects in outdoor and indoor environments, contributing evidence to support smarter transit policy and strategic greenspace development, among other areas.

“One hundred years later, Sir William Gage’s vision of the importance of the environment as a key determinant of health remains alive and well within the School,” said Scott.

“I appreciate the gravitas and passion the building researchers bought to their science and I am honoured to build on their legacy.”

Photo: left to right: James Scott, Martha Smith (great-granddaughter of Sir William Gage), and Howard Hu.

Click here to view photos from the event.