The Man From Shediac

LAWRENCE EARL September 15 1942

The Man From Shediac

LAWRENCE EARL September 15 1942

The Man From Shediac

He has packed two careers into one lifetime. He has won world recognition in both


MOBILE artillery was still a thing of the future when a night-roving band of students from Mount Allison University at Sackville, New Brunswick, “captured” an ancient artillery piece from neglected ruins of Fort Beauséjour and hauled it five miles by van to the campus.

The silence was split by an earshattering roar that woke the entire village. As the smoke cleared, gaping professors saw that the cannon, loaded with stones and rubble, had made a direct hit on its target. A modest but highly utilitarian college outbuilding had been blasted from its foundations and reduced to a mass of splintered timbers.

“That incident,” John Clarence Webster chuckles at the recollection, “was my only association with the forts of Chignecto during my four years of college life.” And he will add further, as to the brand of education he received, “I was well enough grounded in English history, but for all I learned about New Brunswick or Canada I might have been attending school in Patagonia.” He replies with an innocent grin when asked if he was actually a member of that Mount Allison gun

crew, but the part played by the cannonading escapade in shaping the ; unique dual career of this brilliant Canadian is an interesting subject j for speculation.

. For at nineteen Webster left I Mount Allison to commence a medij cal career which was to win him ; international recognition as a leader in the field of obstetrics'and gynecology. Then, at the peak of his ; achievement and the age of fifty! seven, he quit his post at a famous j Chicago hospital and abandoned a prosperous private practice to devote the rest of his life to a profession as remote from medicine as the moon.

Professional friends were convinced he was doomed to stagnate and decay when he returned to his boyhood home in the quiet Maritime town of Shediac, New Brunswick. Instead, Webster launched on a new lifework. Perhaps harking to the roar of the ancient cannon from Fort Beauséjour, he set about collecting all manner of such relics of the past which would make Canadian history come alive, and give today’s Canadians a vivid and i realistic picture of the early days of j their nation.

In the past twenty-two years the doctor-turned-historian has established a reputation for himself in his new field rivalled only by his eminence in the field of medicine. And few of his accomplishments have pleased him more than his restoration of Fort Beauséjour, making it such a colorful page out of the past that

as many as 25,000 people have visited it in a single summer. In perhaps only one respect is the restoration not complete, for the cannon which figured in the Mount Allison incident today stands in front of the Webster home at Shediac.

Dr. J. Clarence Webster (C.M.G., C.M., D.Sc., LL.D., F.R.C.P., F.A.C.S., F.R.S.) will be seventynine years old next month. If you should catch a first glimpse of him bending over the desk in his collecting laboratory, you might get the impression of a keen-faced, silvery - haired gentleman with a grouch.

Actually, his studious eyes burst readily into blooms of amused twinkles. Bushy eyebrows hang over a sharp, expressive face, ready to punctuate his carefully chosen words. Of medium height, he is smallboned and slender.

He is the busiest man in Shediac. He works in the study of his fine Georgian home many hours a day, while the servants tiptoe past the open door in pursuit of household duties. He makes frequent trips to the historical spots and museums he has helped restore and establish, such as Fort Beauséjour, the Nova Scotia Government Archives in the Louisburg Museum on Cape Breton Island, and the New Brunswick Museum at Saint John.

Most of the Canadiana he has worked so hard to collect is housed in the New Brunswick Museum, one of the important museums in Canada. “These things are meant for everyone to know and enjoy—not just one man, or a few,” he says.

The pictorial section of his collection numbers more than 4,000 catalogued items. One of its most important divisions is that relating to General Wolfe, numbering over 200 pictures and the largest such collection in existence. For many years Webster has been a member i of the Historical Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, eager to teach his fellow Canadians more about their own history by attracting their attention to wayside points which have played an important part in the progress of the Dominion.

Edinburgh Prizes

T>ORN IN SHEDIAC, Clarence -D Webster matriculated at the remarkable age of fifteen and graduated from Mount Allison University in 1882; then the nineteen-year-old Bachelor of Arts crossed the sea to enroll in Edinburgh University, then the world’s largest medical school. Working with intense zeal he won many honors and prizes, later took postgraduate studies in Germany and i visited many European medical schools.

Sir Alexander Simpson, head of the Department of Obstetrics at Edinburgh and nephew of the man j who first introduced chloroform as ; an anaesthetic, invited Webster to I become his assistant. He did, and : for six years conducted large classes i and gained wide experience in hos| pital and private practice.

Ill health brought him back to Canada; recurring pulmonary attacks forced him to leave the cold, grey Scottish capital after nearly fourteen

years. But he did not leave Edinburgh before the romance of the city’s past had awakened a real historical interest in the boy from Shediac, an interest which took him on carefully planned walks of intensive exploration about the city’s ancient streets—and an interest which was much later to be transferred to the country of his own boyhood.

Back in Canada he was appointed Assistant Gynecologist at the Royal Victoria Hospital at Montreal and lecturer at McGill University. In 1899 he was invited to fill the Chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology in Rush Medical College, University of Chicago, at the same time becoming Obstetrician and Gynecologist in chief at Chicago’s Presbyterian Hospital. Both posts he held for twentyone years.

That was when — in 1920 — he tossed the bombshell. He had become famous as an operator in the field of abdominal surgery; his medical papers and texts were widely read throughout the U.S., Canada, Britain and Germany; his remarkable ability and striking personality had brought him a large private practice. But Dr. Webster insisted he was going to give it all up and go back to Shediac.

“You can’t do it, man!” his outraged colleagues declared. “You couldn’t possibly live a life of inaction after the crammed-full years you’ve had. You’d just shrivel up and die if you tried it!”

Back to Shediac Dr. Webster went but, as has already been made clear, to no life of inaction. He went back to launch his crusade to cast new light on life in early Canada, discovering and collecting forgotten pictures, engravings, yellow-leaved books and manuscripts—anything that would make more real what went on in the colonies over which France and Britain struggled for 150 years.

To his already lengthy list of medical books and papers he has added new titles on Canadian historical topics. He has received many honors in recognition of his historical work. In 1930 the French Government made him “Officier de l’Instruction Publique.” In 1934 the King of Italy named him Commander of the Order of St. Maurice and St. Lazarus. And in his New Year’s honors list of 1935 King George V made Shediac’s Dr. Webster Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George.

Balbo’s Fall

ON ONE exciting and rather nerve - racking occasion Dr. Webster even played a minor role in the making of history. In 1933, when the famous Italian flier, Italo Balbo (since killed in the war in North Africa), led an “air armada” of twenty-three giant flying boats from Rome to Chicago, one scheduled stop was at Shediac. The town’s leading citizen was appointed chairman of the welcoming committee.

The event could not have been among the most pleasant in Balbo’s log of what was then a tremendous sky jaunt. He failed to spot the

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landing buoys and the huge ships of his air fleet landed at the shallow end of the bay, missing destruction thanks only to a high tide. Balbo’s temper didn’t improve any wrhen the Italian officer in charge of technical arrangements showed him that the buoys were plainly marked on the landing charts provided.

The Balbo irritation jumped a notch when the Shediac town band enthusiastically played the Italian national anthem in its entirety, instead of stopping after a bar or two as the flier himself had ordered. Listening to lengthy speeches in a language he little understood didn’t add to his good humor, nor did he appreciate the fact that Dr. Webster had spent ‘‘the most hectic few hours in my entire life” arranging the reception on three hours’ notice. The Italians had left Labrador for Shediac two days ahead of time without having told anybody.

Shediac’s mostdistinguished visitor was finally shown to a comfortable room in the Webster home and retired for the night, probably in a state of nervous if not physical exhaustion. At two a.m. a terrible scream brought the whole household shuddering from its sleep.

Dr. Webster joined frenzied Italian officials in a race to the guest room. Flinging open the door they found General Italo Balbo floundering on the floor, where the airman who had just flown the Atlantic had landed on falling out of bed.

Only one incident of the visit seemed to give the harried flier unmodified pleasure. It occurred when Balbo was first whisked up to the door of the Webster residence. As he stepped from his official car there was a resounding crash as the old Beauséjour cannon exploded in a welcoming salute—the same cannon that had aroused the sleeping campus and the Webster historical interest years before.

The General snapped to attention, then his face broke out in a genial smile of appreciation as he entered the house. His host got a kick out of it too.