Patient wards are the rooms with patient beds, where patients eat, sleep, and receive general care from doctors and nurses.

In the 19th century patient wards were generally smelly, lice infested, noisy, dirty, and disorderly. By the early 20th century they became increasingly quiet, tidy, disinfected, and efficient in their daily routines.

Through the 20th century the average length of stay in a hospital ward has steadily decreased, but so has the chance that a nurse will know your name without looking on your chart.

The classic patient ward had up to thirty beds arranged in long rows. It is called a Nightingale ward because English nurse Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) strongly promoted this design. The rooms were large and open, with many windows for fresh air and natural light. This was because a dominant theory of disease at the time was that it came from breathing “bad air.” So patients were to have lots of fresh air around them. Having several patients in a room also allowed one nurse to keep an eye on everyone at the same time. This all seemed very modern and efficient.

Through the 20th century, patients unable to wa Read More
Patient wards are the rooms with patient beds, where patients eat, sleep, and receive general care from doctors and nurses.

In the 19th century patient wards were generally smelly, lice infested, noisy, dirty, and disorderly. By the early 20th century they became increasingly quiet, tidy, disinfected, and efficient in their daily routines.

Through the 20th century the average length of stay in a hospital ward has steadily decreased, but so has the chance that a nurse will know your name without looking on your chart.

The classic patient ward had up to thirty beds arranged in long rows. It is called a Nightingale ward because English nurse Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) strongly promoted this design. The rooms were large and open, with many windows for fresh air and natural light. This was because a dominant theory of disease at the time was that it came from breathing “bad air.” So patients were to have lots of fresh air around them. Having several patients in a room also allowed one nurse to keep an eye on everyone at the same time. This all seemed very modern and efficient.

Through the 20th century, patients unable to walk have used rolling chairs to get around.

Though the basic design has remained the same, the materials used for wheelchairs have changed over time. Check out the differences between the chair from the 1920s and the chair from the 1960s.

When George Klein (1904-1992), an engineer at the National Research Council of Canada, encountered injured soldiers returning home from the Second World War, he saw a problem that he thought needed fixing.

Motorized wheelchairs existed as early as the 1920s. However, these models were for outdoor use only, and they required full use of the arm to manipulate the steering lever and hand brake. This was not helpful to people who had limited use of their arms (as well as their legs). Klein invented a steering mechanism, a kind of joystick, that only required small hand movements. This joystick mechanism can be found on almost all electric wheelchairs today.

© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.

A Public Patient Ward at Montreal General Hosptial

A Public Patient Ward at Montreal General Hosptial, around 1920.

Photo courtesy of McGill Universality Archives

© McGill Universality Archives


Wheelchairs

Wheelchairs

Canada Science and Technology Museum, University Health Network Artifact Collection

© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Electric Wheelchair

George Klein (left) and his electric wheelchair, around 1950.

Photo courtesy of National Research Council Canada

© National Research Council Canada


The earliest hospitals were built for the poor in cities. The upper classes didn't want to use them, even though hospitals were the only place people could get access to new medical technologies like x-rays (discovered in 1896), and sterile surgical techniques. To help break down this snobbery, hospitals built private patient rooms. Private patients, who paid extra for their rooms, did not have to share them with anybody. The rooms were furnished more luxuriously, looking more like hotel rooms. It was easier for the wealthy classes to accept going to the hospital if they did not have to stay in the same ward as the poor.

After around 1940, the size of wards in Canadian hospitals became smaller. Instead of 20 beds in the same room, the wards in new hospitals had a maximum of about six or eight. People began to think that privacy made a patient more comfortable. Today the semi-private (two-bed) room is very common. But (surprise!) more privacy may not necessarily be better. Studies show that a patient may be more comfortable in a four-bed room than in a two-bed room—maybe because one annoying neighbour can be less annoying if his or her presence is diluted by other Read More
The earliest hospitals were built for the poor in cities. The upper classes didn't want to use them, even though hospitals were the only place people could get access to new medical technologies like x-rays (discovered in 1896), and sterile surgical techniques. To help break down this snobbery, hospitals built private patient rooms. Private patients, who paid extra for their rooms, did not have to share them with anybody. The rooms were furnished more luxuriously, looking more like hotel rooms. It was easier for the wealthy classes to accept going to the hospital if they did not have to stay in the same ward as the poor.

After around 1940, the size of wards in Canadian hospitals became smaller. Instead of 20 beds in the same room, the wards in new hospitals had a maximum of about six or eight. People began to think that privacy made a patient more comfortable. Today the semi-private (two-bed) room is very common. But (surprise!) more privacy may not necessarily be better. Studies show that a patient may be more comfortable in a four-bed room than in a two-bed room—maybe because one annoying neighbour can be less annoying if his or her presence is diluted by other patients.

© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.

A black and white photo of a Private Patient Room at Toronto General Hospital

A Private Patient Room at Toronto General Hospital, around 1930.

Canada Science and Technology Museum, University Health Network Artifact Collection
c. 1930
© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


A Patient Room

A Patient Room from a catalogue of hospital equipment around 1950.

Canada Science and Technology Museum, University Health Network Artifact Collection
c. 1950
© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Imagine sleeping in a bed that was set to rock back and forth, all night long. This bed, equipped with an electric motor, can help patients who have difficulty breathing due to a partial paralysis of the muscles of the chest. The rocking motion causes the patient's diaphragm to move up, then down, creating a pumping action in the chest and helping air in and out of the lungs. This one was used at the Ottawa Civic Hospital in the 1950s, probably to help patients with mild cases of polio.

On the wards, the nurses do much of the work. Doctors come by and check on the patients, but the nurses are the ones that administer drugs, monitor and record symptoms, and operate medical equipment.

Orderlies do a lot of the work on the wards too. They lift and move patients, and are often involved in meeting the basic needs of the patient, like eating and bathing, and, yes, using the toilet.

It is the nurses and orderlies that take care of things like bedpans. The person who takes care of your bedpan deserves as much respect as you can give them. Your dignity is in their hands.

There was a time, before the mid-1960s, when doctors in a hospital could m Read More
Imagine sleeping in a bed that was set to rock back and forth, all night long. This bed, equipped with an electric motor, can help patients who have difficulty breathing due to a partial paralysis of the muscles of the chest. The rocking motion causes the patient's diaphragm to move up, then down, creating a pumping action in the chest and helping air in and out of the lungs. This one was used at the Ottawa Civic Hospital in the 1950s, probably to help patients with mild cases of polio.

On the wards, the nurses do much of the work. Doctors come by and check on the patients, but the nurses are the ones that administer drugs, monitor and record symptoms, and operate medical equipment.

Orderlies do a lot of the work on the wards too. They lift and move patients, and are often involved in meeting the basic needs of the patient, like eating and bathing, and, yes, using the toilet.

It is the nurses and orderlies that take care of things like bedpans. The person who takes care of your bedpan deserves as much respect as you can give them. Your dignity is in their hands.

There was a time, before the mid-1960s, when doctors in a hospital could make decisions about a patient's health care without discussing it with the patient, or the patient's family. The individual doctor had almost total authority. This was particularly dangerous when the patient was very old or very young, had a mental or physical disability, or was an inmate of a prison. Today we expect to be informed before we are wheeled into surgery. We expect to have a choice. Many hospitals have formalized ideas like this in a “patient bill of rights.”

© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Rocking Bed

Rocking Bed, 1950s

Canada Science and Technology Museum, University Health Network Artifact Collection

© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Bedpans

Bedpans

Canada Science and Technology Museum, University Health Network Artifact Collection

© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Patient Bill of Rights from University Health Network

Patient Bill of Rights from University Health Network (Toronto) 2001

Canada Science and Technology Museum, University Health Network Artifact Collection

© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Observe evolution of hospitals, tools and treatments throughout the twentieth century;
  • Identify the evolution of medical technology and discuss its contribution to treatment and medical care;
  • Illustrate concepts in biology, identify specific diseases and treatments offered (past and present).

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