Farm Boy, Doctor—Then Governor

DOROTHY G. BELL September 15 1924

Farm Boy, Doctor—Then Governor

DOROTHY G. BELL September 15 1924

Farm Boy, Doctor—Then Governor


A SMALL party of Alberta celebrities was toiling, single file, up the steep ascent back of Spirit River to view the country. Zig-zagging like a snake fence down the rocky trail staggered the rough, ill-kept figure of a man. As he neared the little groups of notables he stopped, swayed dizzily before the first man in the party who drew back in horror, for the fellow’s face was smeared with blood that ran from a wound in his head and trickled off his chin. As he stepped forward to steady the staggering man, a husky voice said, “ Lo Tom. Don’t be so shtuck up. Ain’t ye goin’ intajooce me to s’ friends?” The man who had so concerned himself over the tramp's condition laughed, for beneath the blood and dirt he recognized an old-timer of pioneer construction days. He was close enough then to be within reach of certain alcoholic fumes which convinced him the condition was not due entirely to weakness and a hasty survey of the wound in his head was sufficient to prove that it was nothing more than a few scratches probably occasioned by a fall on the rocky roadway. He entered into the spirit of the joke and introduced each man as he came puffing up the hill. The whole party had gathered and had been solemnly introduced and heartily shaken by the hand with the exception of one who was, perhaps, a little heavier than the others, perhaps a trifle older, though he walked with the swing of one to whom rough places were not unfamiliar.

How “Ol’ Doc. Brett ’s ’ ’ medical training fitted him to . diagnose ills of Alberta.

“And this,” said the man of introductions, “is the Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta.”

The man with the bruised face took a step nearer and the wavering eyes focussed almost steadily for a moment on the Lieutenant-Governor’s face.

Then he laughed a long, loud laueh interrupted only by frequent hiccoughing, buta lfrugh nevertheless of sheer enjoyment.

“Lieutenant-Governor,” he gasped as soon as he could get his breath, and he staggered again dangerously—“Lieutenant-Governor!—Hell! That’s ol’

Doc. Brett.”

And “old Doc Brett” it was, pioneer prairie physician, C.P.R. construction surgeon and founder of the Banff Sanitarium. Then the gory countenance of his patient sobered.

“Oh, I’ll pay it to you, Doc. Sure as anything I will,” and without a word of warning he threw his grimy arms around the other’s neck and wept copiously on the shoulder of Dr. Brett’s brand new, light, grey coat. Where the sorry debtor had bowed his head in contrition was a great splotch of mud and blood.

“More liabilities,” sighed the Lieutenant-Governor jocularly, as he did his best to wipe it off.

Lieutenant-Governor Brett began his career on the farm near Strathroy, Ontario, where he was born. Until the age of ten he did all that was required of him on the farm, but he admits that even then he went about his chores dreaming of days to come when he would be a famous doctor. Then the Brett family moved into Strathroy, the nearest town, and the small boy, whose “castles” at such time did not concern Government House but rather perhaps held visions of a little office lined with the bottles and instruments of a great man who made sick people well, had to content himself for the time being with a public school course. But he hated school and was often severely chastised for playing hookey.

A Queer Place for Truants

AT SUCH times as he was absent from his lessons, had the teacher but known it, there was always a sure place of finding the truant. It was in the office of the little apothecary shop of the family physician, Dr. F. R. Eccles. Here he would sit for hours studying the patients as they came and went, watching the doctor intently as he made up prescriptions. Mildly curious, but gaining most of his knowledge through silent observation, he was little or no trouble to the doctor, who was a friend of the family and who liked and took a lively interest in the boy. At the age of sixteen the lad refused to go to school any longer but attached himself firmly to his friend the doctor. So apt was he, so quick to learn, so enthusiastic and keen, that the doctor was soon able to make good use of this self-apprenticed youth and often, in a rush of sickness, would send him on long drives to visit and take care of patient.?.

"I marvel now when I think of those occasions,” said the Lieutenant-Governor. “I don’t think I ever actually killed anybody but I’m sure the number I cured were very


At nights this enterprising youth studied Greek and Latin. During his apprenticeship he managed to attend

the first session at Medical School. His next step was to go to Toronto where, in different ways, he made enough money to put himself through the subsequent sessions. He graduated when he was twenty-one and went into partnership with Dr. F. R. Eccles, later, of London, Ontario, who died a few months ago. Dr. Brett was particularly young at this time—to be a graduate doctor —but he looked even younger.

“My first work was to stay in the office,” said Dr. Brett, “while Dr. Eccles was out on cases, for in those days it sometimes took a whole day to make one visit, for the distances were great and the means of transportation limited.”

Once a farmer came in and asked to see the doctor. “Dr. Eccles is out just now,” replied Dr. Brett, “but I am his partner.” The man looked at the youthful physician for a moment and then exclaimed with derision. “You a doctor; why you’re only a kid.”

Again, an elderly woman entered the office during Dr. Eccles’ absence and in reply to Dr. Brett’s offer of help replied coldly, “No, thank you, I prefer to wait for the doctor.” Dr. Brett swallowed his pride upon these occasions but silently vowed vengeance. Perhaps he got it, for many of these patients later became his own.

It, was a long time before Dr. Eccles could come in from t he outside to find his office clear, but his patients needed only to have Dr. Brett prescribe for them a few times before they overcame their prejudice of his youth. His diagnosis was quick and sure; his perception keen; his training sound; his professional attitude one that inspired confidence and faith.

Dr. Brett’s next move was to buy out a drug store and set up for himself in Mareona. In eight years he built up a large practice. Then he was seized with what he

terms “Manitoba fever” and, though he was sorry to leave Mareona and his practice, he felt the call of greater things. He went to Winnipeg where he dabbled in real estate.

“Like everybody else in those boom days, I thought I would never have to work any more and perhaps if the boom had lasted longer I wouldn’t. But it crashed and I found that I was rich only in liabilities, so I had to turn to and Practise again. I worked up a fairly good practice but it kept my nose to the grindstone for a long time to pay up the many debts I had accumulated.”

Dr. Brett took an active part in the organization of the medical school and for some time was its president. Shortly afterwards, he was given the medical contract for C.P.R. construction.

For two years then he did the hardest work of his life, undergoing all the hardships and difficulties that would have tempted a less active and conscientious man to quit. But he tackled his hardships, his physical discomforts and his pioneering difficulties with the same zest, initiative and energy that he now tackles the problems of his province. There followed many wearing months when he had to rush to emergency calls of sickness or accident at break-neck speed on horse-back over unbroken mountain trails, on “speeders” over rough laid rails or on foot, over mountains too steep and precipitous for even the most nimble-footed pony or burro.

Speed was the great essential and his courage in tackling these tiring and often perilous journeys was the means of saving many lives. Often he would have to swim rivers on horse-back with his instrument case held high above the roar of swollen, mountain torrents and once across he might even have to ride for several hours in the biting, winter winds that whistle with such vengeance down the mountain canyons. Then at the end of the trip, still in his wet clothes, he would sometimes find men so badly hurt or so seriously ill that he would have to amputate a limb, perform a delicate operation perhaps with the aid of only one or two of the construction gang and a few sputtering candles. But Dr. Brett was not one to hesitate and his actions were prompt and his decisions quick.

“Never did I work so hard; never did I experience such hardships but never have I enjoyed two years more than I did those two in the mountains,” he says. “One thing it demonstrated to me was how well one can do in this country without antiseptics, if necessary. There seems to be something-in the mountain air that prevents septic conditions.” Perhaps it was the remarkable recoveries and rapid convalescence that Dr. Brett saw during his work as construction surgeon that gave him' his faith in Alberta mountain air and inspired him with the idea of a mountain sanitarium. Shortly after his construction work was over he opened a hospital at Banff which has since become famous as a rest and convalescent sanitarium It was a long, hard struggle to make it go. Banff at that time was only a tent city and the people who came under his care were mostly railway men, miners, or prospectors passing through or brought from near by camps without the money to pay for treatment. So for a number of years Dr. Brett’s Hospital was full of non-paying patients, for he had the reputation of never turning anyone away. Then, gradually, through sheer hard work and perseverance, the Brett Sanitarium began to pay and Dr. Brett began to have hopes that it would some day corpe up to his expectations. Up to this time the doctor had absolutely no political aspirations and the idea of entering them had never come into his mind. He was literally thrust into them.

“I had been away in the East and upon my return a number of my friends in Banff told me that I had been nominated as candidate for member of 'the Red Deer District. You may judge how interested in politics I was when I tell you that I didn’t even know there was an election.”

There was nothing for it. Dr. Brett was nominated and he plunged into the game as enthusiastically as he plunged into everything else which he undertook.

Strenuous Campaigning

HIS first campaign was almost as strenuous as his mountain surgery and he pioneered in election work

just as he had done in medicine. It was the first election in the district.

Always before that members were appointed—not elected—to the North West Assembly. This was at the time when Alberta and Saskatchewan were one. Dr. Brett drove a team out of Calgary into the Red Deer District to make his first campaign. His constituency lay Continued on page 36

Farm Boy, Doctor— Then Governor

Continued from page 16

one hundred miles north in mountainous country.

Dr. Brett had a very short campaign and almost as soon as he reached Calgary it was time for the election. He was elected then and in subsequent elections. But after winning out against the late Hon. Arthur Sifton for two terms he went down to defeat before him the third time. It did not worry Dr. Brett much for two reasons. The first was that his heart was in his hospital work at Banff and he did not consider politics exactly compatable with a growing business concern. The second reason was that he was a good sport and he considered that defeat was coming to him.

It happened this way. Dr. Brett’s friends declare that he is never on time for anything. During his opposition to Mr. Sifton for a seat in the Rocky Mountains Riding a joint meeting of both candidates was called at Canmore at eight o’clock in the evening, Mr. Sifton arrived on time but Dr. Brett, who was scheduled to speak first, did not appear. The crowd waited until nine o’clock and then began to leave the building. Mr. Sifton naturally did not want to lose the meeting so he volunteered to speak for Dr. Brett. The idea appealed to the audience and Mr. Sifton addressed them as if he were Dr. Brett. He did it well and put all the personality, the enthusiasm, the phraseology into it for which the doctor was noted. After the full quota of time had been spent in the doctor’s behalf, Mr. Sifton began his own speech. He was about half way through when Dr. Brett finally arrived. Not knowing what had gone before, he rose after Mr. Sifton had finished and addressed his audience in almost the same words. The audience responded heartily and laughed and clapped and chided and the doctor thought he had them completely on his side. When he learned later what had happened, he attributed his failure to the joke—not to his habit of never being on time for anything.

WHEN Dr. Brett was finally allowed to concentrate for a little while on his Banff Sanitarium he made it a great success. Successful though it was, he was afraid to leave it in the hands of anyone else and when he was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta it was one of the reasons why he hesitated.

“I was undecided for a long time,” said Dr. Brett, “for two reasons. The first was that I felt I couldn’t afford to leave the hospital in the charge of my eldest son, also a physician. That fear, as I found later, was entirely unfounded. The second reason was that after having led such an active life I would not be able to stand the quiet and inactivity of a Lieuttenant-Governor’s life. That, too, I have discovered was a mis-conception! I am perhaps more active now than I have ever been in my life.”

Dr. Brett let his gaze fall for a moment on a pile of opened correspondence which lay upon his desk.

Dr. Brett is said to be very popular with the fair sex. Perhaps one reason is his gallantry and consideration for them. Yet it is not always appreciated as he once discovered to his great discomfort.

Passing by a house one day he heard feminine screams and evident sounds of distress coming from within. The door was open and Dr. Brett rushed into the rescue of the unfortunate lady. He found a man abusing and brutally beating a woman. The doctor closed with the man and began in simple mountain fashion to “wipe the floor with him.” The doctor was thoroughly enjoying himself when suddenly the woman recovered sufficiently to realize what was happening. Rushing in, she attacked Dr. Brett with nails and teeth until she had put him to flight. The last thing he heard as he escaped through the doorway which he had entered unbidden was, “You big brute, that’ll teach you to leave my husband alone.”

Dr. Brett readily impresses one as possessing a shy, retiring, genial character. His association with the great outdoors, his contact with men of the rough and uncouth class whose whole life is hardship and battle with the forces of nature, have given him a sympathy and understanding of his fellowmen that make his work as Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta a far

reaching and enjoyable one. In fact, whatever his work, he gets enjoyment out of it.

“I can find no sympathy,” he says, “for those who cannot enjoy themselves. There is always a bright side of everything and enjoyment to be got out of it somehow. The best method of extracting it is in taking things philosophically and not worrying. So many people try to revolutionize everything they go into and when things fail to turn out the way they expect they are disappointed and unhappy.

“The men among whom I have worked so long, the rough, outdoor lumberjacks, woodsmen, cowpunchers, I believe are the happiest because of their absolute simplicity. They have a rough exterior but they are more genuine, they have a greater sympathy for each other, a kinder disposition than many men of a higher and more educated class.”

His hand strayed to another letter. He lifted it and a blue cheque dangled from it.

“A thirty-year-old debt just paid,” he commented. “A drunken miner fell against the stove in the Banff station one night and got so badly burned that he was under treatment for several weeks in my hospital. He hadn’t a cent at the time and I never expected to hear of him again.”

The cheque was for $20 and the letter requested that “Doc” Brett tender his bill again as it was so long ago he could not remember the exact amount.

“That is the kind of thing that makes waiting worth while,” said the LieutenantGovernor with a smile.