Toronto's Historical Plaques
Learn a little of Toronto's history as told through its plaques
Doctor Gwynne's Garden
Photos by Alan L Brown - Posted June, 2008
Plaque coordinates: 43.641347 -79.431753
Long before urbanization, Parkdale was comprised of large rural estates. As a way of commemorating the early twentieth century owners of those properties this garden - and others along Queen Street West - have been planted.
Doctor William Charles Gwynne (1806-1875), who once owned this land, was a native of Ireland. Following medical training at Trinity College, Dublin, he arrived in Canada as a ship's surgeon in 1832. He quickly established a medical practice in Toronto and married Anne Murray Powell, a granddaughter of a former chief justice. The Gwynne's bought all the land south of Queen Street between Dufferin Street and Cowan Avenue and, in the 1840s, built their home, a picturesque regency villa called "Elm Grove" on Dufferin Street north of Springhurst Avenue. It was demolished in 1917.
Doctor Gwynne was active in the management of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum and was a professor of anatomy and physiology at King's College (later part of the University of Toronto). A highly principled professional, he spoke out against the barbarous use of mercury as a treatment for diseases. He was so angered by the closing of the college's medical school in 1853 that he retired early from teaching. His remaining twenty years were occupied with farming, travelling and the study of insects.
The selection of medicinal plants for Doctor Gwynne's Garden has been prejudiced in favour of aesthetically pleasing ones: the garden has been planted for show rather than for use. Many valuable herbs are too modest in appearance to be noticed in such a setting. The dominant features of this garden are: eastern white cedar, eastern flowering dogwood, boxwood, common juniper and a hop vine.
In designing this garden commemorating a life dedicated to the healing arts, the theme of medicinal plants seems appropriate. Lacking specific knowledge of Gwynne's own pharmacology, a list of appropriate plants has been drawn up through a reading of nineteenth-century medical advice books. Published authorities contradicted one another frequently, but it was widely agreed that chamomile stills the nerves, that catnip soothes teething children, and that feverfew is a cold remedy. Such most homeopathic medicines were relied upon by farmer and city dweller alike to cure a great many ailments in the last century: and Doctor Gwynne, being one of Toronto's pre-eminent physicians would have been well versed in their use.
In this garden, a selection of three dozen plants with supposed medicinal properties grow. Some, such as purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea - a cold remedy) are well-known today. Some, such as comfrey, are controversial. Some, such as chamomile, have been cultivated for many centuries. Some, such as the black currant (for the treatment of typhoid fever) perhaps owe their medicinal status to folklore rather than science. The modern pharmaceutical industry, however, has its roots in the study and cultivation of herbs: the showy foxglove, for example, gives us digitalis which is a drug of great importance today.
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