PLAYTER, EDWARD, physician, public health reformer, editor, and author; b. 1834 or 1835 in Newmarket, Upper Canada, one of the three sons of James Playter and Agnes Widdifield; m. first 1860 Charlotte Arnold of Thornhill, Upper Canada (d. 1880); m. secondly 17 Oct. 1885 May Belle Frances Sears, née Smart, in Toronto; he had at least two daughters; d. 12 Sept. 1909 in Toronto.
Edward Playter was born into a prominent Upper Canadian family. Both his parents were of United Empire Loyalist descent, and his great-grandfather George Playter was one of the original recipients of land grants in York (Toronto) in September 1793. Edward’s great-uncle Ely Playter was an mha for York and Simcoe counties from 1824 to 1827. Educated in private schools, Edward went on to medical studies and passed examinations for an mb in 1860 and an md in 1868 at the University of Toronto, an institution that examined but did not teach students of medicine after 1853. He began to practise in York Township, and his family connections there led to his appointment as a county coroner.
Playter was a participant in the emerging public health movement in North America, and his career reflected the transition from the sanitarian era to the scientific era with the development of the new sciences of bacteriology and physiology. He took advantage of his status and inherited wealth to promote public health reforms, and was an early member of the American Public Health Association, established in 1872. At his own expense he attended its conventions in American cities. In 1886, as a result of his efforts, the APHA held its annual meeting in Toronto. The association appointed Playter to a special five-member committee investigating the pollution of public water supplies on the continent. Its report was published in 1889.
To garner broad support for public health activities, Playter became a prolific writer. From 1874 to 1892 he edited a journal dedicated to public health that appeared under a variety of names. He wrote pamphlets on tuberculosis, Asiatic cholera, and the high death rates in Canadian cities, and he was the author of two textbooks on hygiene that were used in Ontario schools. Dr William Osler* credited Playter with putting public health on the agenda in late-19th-century Canada.
Playter was a strong proponent of government’s responsibility for general health. As a result of his efforts, Ontario passed an improved statute in 1875 concerning the reporting of deaths. Playter gained practical experience in the field of public health when in 1876 he served as medical health officer for the Toronto suburb of Parkdale, one of the first such officials to be appointed in the province.
During the 1880s and 1890s Playter was a member of the first lobby group that appealed to provincial and federal politicians such as Sir Oliver Mowat and Sir John A. Macdonald* to adopt public health programs. This group, made up of both physicians and lay persons, had called for the creation of a permanent provincial board of health in Ontario, which was formed in 1882 [see Peter Henderson Bryce*]. Playter later moved to Ottawa, where his group made an unsuccessful attempt to have a federal health department set up to regulate matters such as sanitation, quarantine, and food adulteration (a federal department would not be created until 1919). In May 1892 he was the driving force behind the establishment of the short-lived Dominion Health Institute, a lobby group and precursor of the Canadian Public Health Association. He also called for the organization of a national laboratory and a permanent national system of vital statistics on births, deaths, and diseases.
The major goals of Edward Playter’s career as a pioneering advocate of the public health movement would be achieved in Canada by 20th-century reformers such as Charles John Colwell Orr Hastings* and John Gerald FitzGerald*. The philosophy of medical practice he advocated, based on the promotion of health rather than the treatment of diseases, still motivates specialists in preventive medicine.
The public health journal founded and edited by Edward Playter appeared from July 1874 until 1892 under a variety of titles, including Sanitary Journal, Canada Health Journal, Dominion Sanitary Journal, Man, and Health Journal. It was issued from Toronto until sometime in 1884 when it moved to Ottawa. Playter’s writings include numerous contributions to his journal. In addition, he is the author of several monographs relating to public health matters, most notably Consumption: its nature, causes and prevention . . . (Toronto and Montreal, 1895); a list of these works is available in Canadiana, 1867–1900.
AO, RG 80-5, no.1885-014150; RG 80-8, no.1909-004644. Evening Telegram (Toronto), 13 Sept. 1909: 10. Canada Lancet, 43 (1909–10): 145–46. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898). Commemorative biog. record, county York. R. D. Defries, “Dr. Edward Playter – a vision fulfilled,” Canadian Journal of Public Health (Toronto), 50 (1959): 368–77; “Twenty years of pioneer effort to establish a Canadian health association (1872–1892),” Canadian Public Health Journal (Toronto), 30 (1939): 357–66. The development of public health in Canada . . . , [ed. R. D. Defries] (Toronto, 1940). The town of York, 1793–1815: a collection of documents, ed. and intro. E. G. Firth (Toronto, 1962).