Colonel The Honourable Herbert Alexander Bruce, MD, LLD 1868-1963

On August 19, 2010, the Ontario Heritage Trust, the Lake Scugog Historical Society and the Township of Scugog unveiled a provincial plaque at Dr. Herbert A. Bruce Community Park in Port Perry, Ontario, to commemorate Colonel The Honourable Herbert Alexander Bruce, MD, LLD.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:


    Herbert Bruce was born at Blackstock in 1868, and grew up on a farm located on this Port Perry site. In 1893, he graduated in medicine from the University of Toronto. Specializing in surgery, he rose to the top of his profession, and in 1911 founded the Wellesley Hospital, Toronto. During the First World War, he was appointed Inspector-General of the Canadian Medical Services and produced the Bruce Report, a frank criticism of medical care provided to Canadian soldiers serving overseas. In 1919, Bruce married Angela Hall. Dedicated to public service, Bruce was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Ontario (1932-1937) and served as the Conservative member of Parliament for Parkdale, Toronto (1940-1946). In 1934, Bruce condemned the state of Toronto’s poorer neighbourhoods, and was a vocal member of the Opposition during the Second World War. Bruce championed cancer care in the 1920s, social housing in the 1930s, better health care for the military and veterans, and the introduction of contributory health insurance in the 1940s.


    Né à Blackstock en 1868, Herbert Bruce grandit dans une ferme située sur ce site de Port Perry. En 1893, il obtient son diplôme de médecine à l’Université de Toronto. Spécialiste en chirurgie, il se hisse parmi les meilleurs de la profession et fonde l’hôpital Wellesley à Toronto, en 1911. Durant la Première Guerre mondiale, il est nommé inspecteur général du Service de santé des Forces canadiennes et publie le rapport Bruce, une critique franche des soins médicaux apportés aux soldats canadiens en poste outre-mer. En 1919, Herbert Bruce épouse Angela Hall. Dévoué au service public, il est nommé lieutenant-gouverneur de l’Ontario (1932- 1937) avant de siéger comme député conservateur de Parkdale, Toronto (1940- 1946). En 1934, Bruce dénonce la situation des quartiers moins favorisés de Toronto; pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale, il se fait particulièrement entendre au sein de l’opposition. Bruce milite pour le traitement du cancer dans les années 1920, le logement social dans les années 1930, puis en faveur de meilleurs soins médicaux pour les militaires et anciens combattants ainsi que du régime d’assurance-maladie contributif dans les années 1940.

Historical background


Herbert Bruce’s life was shaped by his personal qualities of energy, ambition, courage and patriotism. These traits enabled him to achieve professional success and public commendations but also steered him into public and professional controversies.

In 1837, Robert and Sarah Bruce, Northern Irish Protestants, immigrated and settled in Cartwright Township located near the modern village of Blackstock. The youngest of their four sons, Stewart, farmed his share of the family property and married Isabella Morrow. Herbert Alexander Bruce, their third child, was born on September 28, 1868. In the mid-1870s, his parents recognized the importance of education for their children, and moved the family a short distance west to a farm property in Port Perry1 so their children could attend Port Perry High School. Reflecting on his upbringing and childhood, Bruce described a classic farm life of hard work, simple pleasures and plain food without indulgence in alcohol or tobacco.2

A career in medicine

Bruce’s boyhood ambition was to become a doctor. After two apprenticeships, first to a Port Perry pharmacist and then to a Toronto physician-pharmacist, he had saved enough money to enroll in the Toronto School of Medicine. A local Port Perry newspaper proudly announced in October 1888, “Our town has furnished four medical students this term, viz: Messrs. Bigelow, Sangster, Bruce and Penhall.”3 He graduated top of his class, winning the Gold Medal in 1892, and received his MD in 1893. During that same year, Bruce was one of eight graduates appointed as House Surgeons to the Toronto General Hospital. While there, he decided to take post-graduate training in surgery and, in 1896, became the second Canadian to qualify for a Fellowship in the Royal College of Surgeons (England). In London, Dr. Bruce attended clinics given by England’s top surgeons, including Frederick Treves.4 Also in 1896, Bruce was appointed as an Associate Professor of Clinical Surgery at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto.5 The 1890s were exciting times for surgeons and would-be surgeons. Techniques for managing pain and preventing infection – anesthesia, antiseptics and absence of bacteria in the surgical setting – were developed during the 1840s-1870s and created a period of surgical optimism.6

Herbert Bruce returned to Toronto in 1906 and set up medical practice there.7 As a bachelor, he was able to devote all his energies to his work, and also developed important and influential relationships within the medical and social communities. He contributed to the Academy of Medicine (founded in 1907) through published papers8 and joined the Toronto Hunt Club, the Toronto Club, the York Club, the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, the Ontario Jockey Club (Bruce kept a horse and enjoyed riding for much of his life) and the Ontario Motor League.9 This involvement and acceptance by the elite of Toronto created a large social network for Bruce and assisted in the development of his impressive medical practice.10

In 1911, Bruce bought the former home of businessman Frederic Nicholls11 at the corner of Wellesley and Sherbourne Streets, Toronto, to accommodate a growing practice, which he turned into The Wellesley Hospital (The Wellesley), a private facility.12 Groups of physicians serving geographical, religious or gendered needs had founded hospitals from the 1880s onwards in Toronto,13 but it was daring for an individual to do so. Bruce’s need for an efficient way to manage his large practice of private patients coincided with a changing public perception of hospitals that made it acceptable for people who had been accustomed to treatment at home, to choose to be treated at the new, modern hospital. Generally hospitals up to this point in time had been charitable institutions for the sick poor but now became increasingly scientifically driven curative institutions. The Wellesley was planned with paying patients’ expectations in mind; it had gracious surroundings and comfortable rooms, and also provided superb care from trained nurses and surgeons. The Wellesley Hospital quickly built a solid reputation as a well-run institution and nursing school, due in part to the close working relationship of Dr. Bruce and his Superintendent of Nursing, Miss Elizabeth Flaws.14

Fourteen years into his practice, Dr. Bruce began to receive honours from the professional medical community; he was elected in 1911 as President of the Ontario Medical Association and as a Fellow of the American Surgical Association.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Colonel Sam Hughes organized a Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC). Dr. Bruce, already a lieutenant-colonel in the Medical Reserve Corps, volunteered his services to the CAMC. Impressed with Dr. Bruce’s distinguished reputation as a skilled surgeon, Hughes appointed Bruce Inspector-General of Canadian Medical Services in 1916 and requested that he produce a report on the medical care given to Canadian soldiers overseas. The resulting ‘Bruce Report’ condemned the care received by Canadian soldiers, specifically in some British hospitals, and recommended the complete reorganization of the Canadian Medical Service. The report caused a furor in the British press and in Canadian Parliament, and Dr. Bruce was forced to resign the position as Inspector-General. Bruce made a personal effort to correct misunderstandings and erroneous information by publishing his own account in “Politics and the Canadian Army Medical Corps (1919).”15 Ultimately, many of Bruce’s recommendations were adopted by the CAMC.

By this time, Bruce had gained a reputation as a leading international authority on medical practices in the battlefield and accepted the offer to become consulting surgeon to the Royal Army Medical Corps in France. In addition, the French army asked Bruce to tour their medical facilities and to recommend improvements to patient care.

In 1919, Bruce married Angela Hall,16 a young Voluntary Aid Detachment worker he met while overseas, and returned to Toronto to rebuild his busy practice and to attend to the flagging post-war financial health of the Wellesley Hospital. He lost his surgical appointment to the Toronto General Hospital in 1921 during a reorganization of its surgical service but retained his university teaching appointment until his retirement in 1930.17 Bruce continued to publish, with an increasing interest from 1922 onwards in what he termed the “cancer problem,”18 suggesting that a cancer treatment and research hospital should be established in every major centre. This idea prepared the way for his future lobbying efforts to establish Wellesley Hospital as a leading cancer treatment centre (which he hoped would solve its financial problems).19

A second career in public service

After an active 35-year career as a surgeon, Dr. Bruce embarked on a new career in 1932, a Lieutenant Governor of Ontario appointed by Prime Minister R.B. Bennett. Bruce was well connected politically after the First World War, known to be a Conservative in politics, and well respected in Toronto social, academic and medical circles. He was regarded as dependable and conservative, by reason of his social connections. In taking on the vice-regal responsibilities in the Great Depression, he surprised all three levels of government by acting as more than figurehead. As an example, when he toasted the City of Toronto at its centennial dinner in 1934, rather than keep to standard congratulatory remarks, Bruce decried the condition o housing, to which he connected the inhabitants’ ill health, and called for demolition of its slums.20 Within days, a committee assembled to examine the issue with Bruce as the Honorary Chair; it submitted a report that included architectural drawings of a proposed development of one city block.21 (Although the report led to federal legislation regarding housing, no redevelopment occurred in this particular area of Toronto until the 1950s. Some of Bruce's recommendations eventually led to the development of the Regent Park and Moss Park neighbourhood developments).

Bruce gave many addresses as Lieutenant Governor – 106 are published in his two volumes of collected speeches.22 He strayed into controversial territory when he gave speeches adv eugenics23 and the ‘sterilization of the feeble-minded,’ a practice and terminology that is unacceptable today but one that was seriously discussed and supported to varying degrees across Canada at the time.24 Ontario’s Premier Mitch Hepburn refused to consider introducing eugenics legislation.25

Dr. Bruce’s final contribution to public service was as the Conservative Member of Parliamen for Toronto, Parkdale, in 1940-46. Rejected for active service in the Second World War (he was 70 years old in 1938), service as a parliamentarian was his involvement in the war effort. Bruce sat on the front bench with the Opposition and his new friend John Diefenbaker. H he pursued his interests in wartime administration, soldiers’ medical treatment and most significantly, the proposed health insurance bill. As a member for the Committee on Social Security in 1943-44, Bruce actively reviewed documents, interviewed witnesses and conducted his own research particularly regarding the question of what type of "healer" would be eligible for insured health services.26

Bruce resigned his parliamentary seat in 1946 but continued to serve the University of Tor as a Governor. He gave up his shares in the Wellesley Hospital so that it could become a general public hospital in 1948.


Dr. Bruce realized that he had experienced some of the greatest changes and advancements made in medicine. His medical knowledge and the experience of seeing and treating of patients gave him an understanding of what we now consider fundamental social determinants of health. This awareness led him to pursue better housing for the people of Toronto. In a twist of fate the Wellesley Hospital, founded for private patients in the early 2 century, realigned itself with the changed downtown community in the late 20th century to support the needs of a disadvantaged urban population. Subsequently, after the hospital closed in 1998, its name lives on in the Wellesley Institute, defined in 2006 as “a non-profit and no partisan research and policy institute …focused on finding solutions to problems of urban health.”27 One of Bruce’s most passionate causes - affordable housing - is one of the Institute's four main policy areas.

Colonel The Honourable Herbert Alexander Bruce, remembered by a surgical friend in his obituary as “a wizard in surgery, a Galahad in politics, …a gentleman" died at home in his 94th year.28 He is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Felicity Pope in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2010

1 The 100-acre property was bound by King, Simcoe and Major streets and on the west by a concession line east of Union Avenue. The area eventually became Perry View Park and, in August 2010, the park was renamed after Dr. Herbert Bruce at the request of the Lake Scugog Historical Society in partnership with the Township of Scugog. The provincial plaque to commemorate Dr. Bruce is located on this property.

2 Varied Operations. Longmans, Green and Company: Toronto 1958. Queen’s University Archives, H.A. Bruce #2111, Box 1, letter Angela Bruce to Max Aitken, May 26, 1956.

3 See this website, accessed 15 May 2010.

4 Dr. Treves performed the first appendectomy in Britain in 1888, and performed the operation on Edward VII shortly before his coronation. Dr. Treves also became known for his friendship and care of Joseph Merrick, known as "The Elephant Man."

5 Bruce visited Sir William Mulock, Vice-Chancellor University of Toronto, to thank him for his appointment. This began a life-long social, university and business connection between the two men.

6 Jacalyn Duffin, History of Medicine: A Scandalously Short Introduction. University of Toronto Press, 1999, 231-233.

7 Health care in Ontario at this time was provided in a complex medical marketplace, where the doctors who held University and Toronto General Hospital appointments formed an elite group. Prior to Medicare (and before income tax), the medical fees paid by rich patients essentially subsidized the care of those unable to afford them. As a result, for physicians like Bruce, it was essential to build a large practice of fee-paying patients.

8 Bruce published 49 papers, some repeated in different journals, from 1897 to 1932. See Thomas Fisher Book Library, Papers by H.A. Bruce, #0195, Academy of Medicine Biographical Files.

9 He is listed as one of the circa 4,000 “prominent householders” in The Society Blue Book of Toronto and Hamilton. A Social Directory 1911, New York, Dau’s Blue Books; Toronto: Wm. Tyrell & Co, 41.

10 City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 588.

11 Frederick Thomas Nicholls (1856-1921), a Canadian businessman and politician. He was a Conservative senator representing the senatorial division of Toronto (1917-21).

12 Joan Hollobon, The Lion’s Tale: A History of the Wellesley Hospital. Irwin Publishing Inc. Toronto, 1987, 15.

13 Twelve doctors formed the Toronto Western Hospital in 1895 to serve the west end of Toronto; For Mount Sinai history from 1923, see this website (accessed 2 May 2010); Women’s College Hospital history from 1909, see this website (accessed 2 May 2010).

14 Examples of the correspondence between Bruce and Flaws discuss the minutiae of hiring staff, choosing bed frames, room layout, The Lion’s Tale. 24-29.

15 Politics and the Canadian Army Medical Corps (see this website, accessed 20 May 2010).

16 The Bruces had one son, Herbert Maxwell, born in February 1920.

17 The University of Toronto appointed Dr. Bruce as Professor Emeritus of Surgery in 1930 and, in 1931, he became a member of the University’s Board of Governors.

18 13. Can Med Assoc J. 1922 April; 12(4): 225-229.

19 J.T.H. Connor, Doing Good, University of Toronto Press 2000, 216-219.

20 See “Looking Forward” in Our Heritage and Other Addresses. Toronto, Macmillan, 1934, 170-172.

21 See this website, accessed 2 May 2010.

22 See Our Heritage and Other Addresses. Toronto, Macmillan, 1934 and Friendship: The Key to Peace and Other Addresses. Toronto, Macmillan, 1937.

23 The word "eugenics" was coined by English scientist, explorer and anthropologist, Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911). Literally mean "normal genes," eugenics aims to improve the genetic makeup of the human species by selective breeding.

24 The historical origins of this movement in Canada are clearly explained in "Eugenics: Keeping Canada Sane," accessed 15 May 2010.

25 Charles Godfrey. See chapter 10 in Bruce: Surgeon, Soldier, Statesman, Sonofa.

26 Research files show that he continued his efforts to protect the public by preventing drugless practitioners, (chiropractors, Christian Scientists, osteopaths) from calling themselves "Doctor," Queen’s University Archives, H.A. Bruce Papers, Locator 2111, Box 7, File III, folders 1-4.

27 See this website, accessed 3 May 2010.

28 Ann R. Coll Surg Engl. 1963 October; 33 (4): 257-259.