Keg River’s One -Woman Medical Clinic
By tractor, sleigh or on horseback Mary Percy Jackson for twenty-five years has covered her 1,200-square-mile practice in northern Alberta, acting as doctor, dentist, nurse or veterinarian. She’s often been paid off in moose meat — handy fare for a family of five
THE NIGHT of Jan. 15, 1935, was a savage 60 below zero at Keg River, Alta., four hundred and sixty miles northwest of Edmonton. In the tangled wilderness of bush and muskeg around Frank Jackson’s farm, a mile and a half from the Keg River trading post, brittle spruce boughs cracked like pistol shots and wild creatures huddled motionless in the cold.
It was a sombre night indoors, too. In the yellow stucco farmhouse Jackson’s wife was about to give birth to a child, six weeks premature and one hundred and forty-five miles from hospital. For once in his seventeen years of pioneering Frank Jackson was helpless. He could only stand awkwardly at the bedside with Eva Harrington, the local telegrapher’s wife who had come to help, and whisper, “What if something goes wrong?” Then his wife spoke up calmly from the bed. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll tell you what to do.”
And she did. At 2 a.m. on the 16th, with the mother still gasping instructions, Mrs. Harrington completed the delicate breech delivery of fourpound John Jackson. This combined feat of motherhood and midwifery came as no surprise to the six hundred trappers, farmers and half-breeds of the Keg River country. It’s the sort of thing they expect from Mrs. Frank Jackson, who is also Mary Percy Jackson, MD.
Day after day this tall robust woman, who is now in her early fifties with greying hair and fresh pink English complexion, juggles the roles of farmer’s wife and country doctor. At one moment she’s washing breakfast dishes or telling bedtime stories; a moment later she’s jolting through the bush in a truck as Keg River’s physician, nurse, coroner, dentist, dietitian and veterinarian.
It seemed inevitable that, sooner or later, Dr. Jackson would have Mrs. Jackson for a patient. It was simply another episode in her dramatic double life.
To see her in the apron and print dress of housewife Jackson, you might think she leads a life of boredom. Keg River is a lonely oasis in the bush. There are no telephones, no movies and only one mail delivery a week. In wet weather the nine-mile dirt road that links the settlement with the graveled north-south Mackenzie Highway is fit only for farm tractors and “The Post”as it’s called is cut off from the world.
The Post is a tiny cluster of log and white frame buildings: the Hudson’s Bay Company store, government telegraph and weather office, public school, Roman Catholic church and a few private buildings. At the settlement Mary Percy Jackson sees the same friends she has known for ten or twenty years: stubby Gladwin Harrington, the telegrapher; store manager Ray Ross; curly-haired Harry Bowe, who’s been spinning yarns, running a farm, managing the post office and doing favors for people for a quarter century, and Father Jean, the priest who cheerfully navigates the rutted roads in a half-ton truck.
Mrs. Jackson’s five children are no longer home. Three stepsons by her husband’s first marriage —Arthur, Frank and Louis are dairy farmer, oilfield driller and Keg River homesteader, respectively. Her 22-year-old daughter, Anne, is married to a neighboring farmer. John, now a tall healthy 19-year-old graduate of restaurant management at the Calgary Institute of Technology, works in Revelstoke, B.C.
It could, indeed, be a dull existence if that were the end of it. But one knock and a few urgent words at the Jacksons’ back door can topple this
placid routine. Then Mary Percy Jackson becomes a brisk authoritative figure in white smock with familiar doctor’s satchel— a near-legendary figure in northern Alberta. For twenty-five years “the doctor,” or “Missus Doctor” as some foreign patients call her, has been the settlers’ bulwark between life and death.
Sometimes the patients come to her dispensary, a neat white cubicle in the farmhouse basement, with an examining table, thirty-year-old microscope and shelves of medicine reaching to the ceiling. Sometimes she bounces off to see them on the seat of a Massey-Harris tractor. She has also traveled her 1,200-square-mile beat by dogsled, canoe, horseback, auto and sleigh. She has delivered hundreds of babies in one-room shacks and in smoky tents, performed operations by flickering candlelight on kitchen tables, battled measles and rabies, pulled teeth and even treated livestock. One of her first patients was an Alsatian dog with a broken leg.
“Of course, I’m not qualified to act as a veterinarian,” she said one day last summer. “But if a farmer has a sick cow and can’t get out to a vet, I can tell him how Frank and I cured a similar case. Yesterday, for example, I treated eight people and one cow!”
Over bad roads in worse weather the bush doctor had to send her patients to hospital
In terms of material gain it’s a singularly unrewarding practice. There is no carpeted waiting room with gilt lettering on the door; in fact, there’s no waiting room. Dr. Jackson is paid more often in blueberries, moccasins and moose meat than in cash.
But Mary Percy Jackson loves the north, its people and her medicine. Even after an eighteenhour day she’ll sit up at night poring over a medical journal. She relishes rare difficult cases and, like any good physician, is completely dispassionate on the joh.
Three years ago she attended a medical refresher
course at the University of Alberta. Though her trips outside, with opportunities for shoptalk and sightseeing, are few, she spent her spare time visiting Keg River métis patients in an Edmonton TB ward.
One day last summer I waited outside her dispensary while she checked the blood pressure of a young half-breed Cree from the colony at Paddle Prairie, twenty-five miles away. It was a routine task but the doctor spent a half hour chatting with the patient about his recent illness, his family, his future prospects. She ended with a crisp, “You’re coming along nicely. Come back in a couple of weeks. You owe me two dollars.”
“Sure, doctor,” beamed the man—and there is a special ring of respect and affection to the way
Keg River people say “doctor.” “Thank you, doctor.”
Upstairs a moment later Mary Percy Jackson’s cool professional detachment gave way to a glow of pleasure.
“What a wonderful thing,” she said. “He’s a fine young man, one of the decent hard-w'orking types. Last spring it looked as though he’d never work again. Now’ he’s almost well. Things like that make this job worthwhile.”
Later, as she sat in her living-room bay window twisting cotton swabs for the next day, she mused, “I know it seems crazy that I should go on practicing medicine here. Perhaps it is crazy. But medicine is such a fascinating thing. And I know I’ve always been doing a necessary job.”
“She made this country fit for settlement,” says Theodora M. Paul, a middle-aged English school teacher who taught at Keg River five years before returning to England this fall. “Families simply wouldn’t have dared settle in Keg River if she hadn’t been here.”
Rack in 1928 the people of Birmingham, England, expected great, things of Dr. Mary Percy, specialist in obstetrics. But they scarcely expected she’d become a bush-country heroine, part-time dentist or nursemaid to a cow.
“Her academic career was quite distinguished,” Professor A. P. Thomson, dean of medicine, wrote from the University of Birmingham recently. “In the final examination of June 1927 she was awarded the Queen’s scholarship as the best all-round candidate of her year. It seemed a little remarkable at the time that a girl of such academic promise should throw her immediate opportunities aside in favor of life on the frontier.”
But the Alberta government was looking for doctors who could double as nurses in the north. Since woman doctors were more plentiful in England the government advertised in a British medical journal for “English well-qualified woman doctors, physically strong and capable of taking complete charge of any type of emergency with no hospital. The ability to ride a horse would be an advantage.”
The Lessons She Learned
The ad intrigued Dr. Percy, a vigorous girl with unflattering round-rimmed spectacles that gave heran owlish look. She loved to ride horseback but rarely had the time or money. She decided to take the job for one year.
Aglow with adventure she boarded the Empress of Scotland in June 1929 and a month later traveled one hundred miles north of Peace River, Alta., on a river barge. Then the romance began to wear off. She disembarked for a bone-shaking eleven-hour eighteen-mile wagon ride with her 29 pieces of baggage. The temperature was 95 degrees and the air thick with mosquitoes.
Her home, at her first practice near Notikewin, was a fourteen-by-twentyfoot shack. Her drinking water came from a river in which a woman upstream washed shirts and a bridgebuilding gang took baths. Her horse, a temperamental creature, frequently broke loose and galloped thirty or forty miles away overnight.
She often had to ford rivers and often fell in, to the glee of the natives. At first she rode out impeccably attired in breeches, riding habit and boots. After an average twenty miles a day she couldn’t pull the boots from her swollen feet at night, so eventually she changed to more practical moccasins and buckskin jacket. When winter came her moccasins froze to the stirrups, her groceries froze in the shack while she was on the trail and her nose and fingers froze and peeled with monotonous regularity.
Once she rode 90 miles on a sleigh in sub-zero weather with a fractured skull patient. The delirious patient occasionally tried to get up and walk, but they reached hospital in nineteen hours without mishap and he recovered. An auto trip to hospital with an appendicitis case took her twenty hours in deep mud. During one eight-
day period she spent one and a half nights in bed, rode 180 miles on horseback and made a 100-mile trip ter* hospital with a patient on a sleigh hauled by caterpillar tractor.
But she took everything in her stride. Her letters to England bubbled with good humor: “My shack is
simply topping”; “We’re going to have a cemetery. They’ll need one if I go on at this rate, three deaths in two months”; “I’m more in love with this country than ever. It’s just like living in a book or in the films.”
The settlers flocked in from miles around, sometimes with ailments they’d saved up for years. After a day on the road she usually found clusters of notes fluttering from her door: some-
body had had a baby or chopped off' a toe or caught pneumonia.
She never refused a case. One of her first patients was a half-breed with an aching wisdom tooth.
“I bared my brawny right arm, gave a colossal pull and nearly went backwards through the window but I got it,” she recalls. Her reputation as a dentist quickly spread.. One man walked twenty miles, had ten teeth pulled, then walked home in a blizzard. Another came 140 miles for dental work. Nowadays she tries to send all dental cases to qualified dentists.
In her spare moments that first year she shot grouse, ate moose, skated on the river, attended her first rural dance (and came away with feet well trampled by hobnail boots) and suddenly realized that she didn’t want to leave the north.
Once she wrote home, “The snow is a mysterious sort of deep-blue color under the northern lights. The stars seem nearer and brighter and sparkle fiercely in the cold. The silence here is different from any quietness one gets in England. You can stand and listen for ten minutes without hearing the slightest sound. I love the sleigh drives, too, and the jingle of bells and the squeak of runners on the packed snow.”
One day in 1930 Frank Jackson, a widower who had farmed at Keg River since 1918, came to the doctor with an infected finger. The two had much in common, including their enthusiasm for the north and their ability to cope with its rigors. Jackson, a lean leathery man with a wry sense of humor, is a master of practically every trade. He built the three-bedroom farmhouse himself, even to chopping trees and sawing planks. He installed hot-air heating, electric lights, plumbing and a green-tiled bathroom. He made chairs and bookcases and finished them off with ornamental carving. He’s a self-taught taxidermist and mechanic. In 1953 he was named a Master Farmer of Alberta, an annual award for general proficiency given only to five farmers in the province.
Jackson and Mary Percy were married in 1931 and the doctor dropped her government job.
“I didn’t intend to keep on with medicine,” she says. “I don’t really hold with married women having another job. But when people were ill I couldn’t refuse them.”
Jackson, who often refers proudly to his wife as “the doctor,” didn’t object to her double life. Patients continued to send for Dr. Jackson, but now the messengers stayed behind to finish the doctor’s dinner dishes or baby-sit with her children. Now she read cookbooks as well as the Canadian Medical Journal.
Her two jobs complement each other. Bush doctoring takes the boredom out of housework; indeed, sometimes, it’s too dramatic for comfort. One winter night she was called to a pneumonia patient. It was 65 below. She treated the patient (who later recovered) with I Keg River’s first sulfa drugs and started I home with a sleigh and driver. Halfj way there she woke from a catnap to [ find the horses at a standstill and the driver asleep. She prodded the driver, dozed again and awoke to the same j j situation. This time she stayed at the driver’s elbow all the way home for to i fall asleep on the trail at that temperaI ture means almost certain death.
Once an 80-year-old settler who spoke English, French and Cree lost all speech when he suffered a stroke. As he recovered, the English came back first. He carried on gay conversations with the doctor but his angry Cree wife who spoke no English, thought her husband was giving her the run-around. His Cree speech returned just as his wife was about to leave; peace returned to the household, j Sometimes, though, the family squabbles involve mayhem. One night j a métis man checked in with a dislocated shoulder. In a few hours his wife came along with a broken wrist. A third relative drifted in with a knife wound. A fourth arrived with assorted j bruises and cuts.
“What’s going on?” said the doctor. “Nothing much,” shrugged the patient. “Yesterday was sports day.” The métis treat childbirth with elaborate unconcern. One half-breed mother went to an evening dance after having a baby in the afternoon. Another was out on a trapline in deep snow at 40 below four days after bearing a child. One 16-year-old maternity case was attended by her mother who fought a forest fire at the same time. The fire petered out and the baby survived.
At first the métis resented Dr. Jack-
son’s rubber gloves, white gown, sterile sheets and lectures about proper diet. Once she moved an expectant mother from a grubby horse-blanket to sheets. The family moved her back when the doctor left, “so the sheets wouldn’t get dirty.”
Another time she coaxed several i mothers to use cod liver oil. They did, too—for lamp oil and fox bait.
Gradually, though, she has won their confidence. Now when she visits Paddle Prairie, the word spreads by what she calls “moccasin telegraph” and she’s surrounded by enough work for a week. For this she is frequently paid with a hasty, “No have got, doctor, thank you, good-by.”
“For the ordinary run of ailments up here they can’t afford to pay much,” she says. “On the other hand, I can’t afford to give a good deal of time to medicine merely as a hobby. What patients I can collect from I do, as much as they can pay.”
Her funds come partly from patients, partly in unsolicited donations from friends in Canada and England, sometimes from societies like the Fellowship of the Maple Leaf, an English organization that aids missionaries, teachers and doctors abroad. Sometimes she borrows from Frank but always pays him back. Nearly all of her cash is spent on her well-stocked dispensary.
“If you’re going to practice medicine you might as well do it right,” she says. “I’m so glad I’ve lived long enough to use the new drugs.”
Doctor friends in cities sometimes donate the sample packages of drugs that are sent to physicians from the manufacturers.
Even if every patient paid cash it would not compensate for the doctor’s service to the community over the years. It was she who clamored persistently for a public school on the ground that an educated population can better understand disease and the need for its treatment. In 1937, the community built a school. Then it was the doctor who wrote letters year ’ter year, luring reluctant teachers *nto remote Keg River.
When 120 cases of measles broke out last year, mostly at the metis colony, she made the fifty-mile round trip to Paddle Prairie nearly every day for two months. In the winter of 1952-53 she fought the rabies that crept down from the Northwest Territories, probably the most tragic and terrifying event in Keg River’s history.
Rabies is the Latin word for madness. The disease may be transmitted to any warm-blooded animal through a bite or scratch, travels via the nerve tissue to the brain and, once there, is fatal.
It reached Keg River in October 1952 when foxes and wolves ran through fields and farmyards in broad daylight, wild-eyed and foaming at the mouth. By November, cattle, horses, pigs, cats and dogs were going mad or standing stricken with “dumb” rabies — pitiful, slowly dying creatures with pleading eyes.
One farmer was chased by a rabid horse, fell over a straw pile, lost a boot and escaped while the crazed animal chewed the boot. A woman from the métis colony was chased into a creek by a rabid fox. Three children playing on a strawstack almost tumbled on a rabid fox which, fortunately, was too weak to attack. Some children were escorted to school. Everyone carried clubs or guns. Inevitably, humans came in contact with the disease. For Dr. Jackson it was a time of sleepless nights and grave responsibilities.
Did Mice Kill the Cats?
Her son-in-law, Johnny Vos, was the first patient. One day Vos examined a sick heifer’s mouth and was covered with saliva before he realized the beast had rabies. He rushed to his mother-inlaw. Now the doctor faced a dilemma. Exposed persons do not necessarily catch rabies. The vaccine itself in rare cases can be fatal. It was a grim decision but Dr. Jackson vaccinated and Vos did not contract rabies.
Then seventy-year-old Mrs. Louisa Bottle reported one morning she’d been bitten on the face overnight.
“And it sure wasn’t a bedbug,” she told the doctor. The bite resembled the tooth marks of a mouse. Since cats were dying in droves around the settlement it seemed likely that mice were rabid. The doctor vaccinated Mrs. Bottle and, later, two other women with similar bites. She vaccinated another woman who had been bitten by a dog; laboratory tests later proved the dog rabid.
Fourteen-year-old Ray Ross, the storekeeper’s son, found his saddle pony lying stricken one day. He tried to urge the pony to its feet and skinned a finger on its teeth. Again the doctor vaccinated and her judgment was sound. The horse was destroyed and evidence of rabies found in its brain. There were no human fatalities in Keg River, probably thanks to Dr. Jackson.
Several hundred head of livestock died. Busy as she was, the compassionate doctor took time to visit farms and look at rabid cows and horses.
“There was nothing 1 could do but
it seemed to make the owners feel better to know I’d been there,” she says.
Meanwhile, prairie newspapers were quoting official reports that the disease was under control. Dr. Jackson indignantly barraged MPs, MLAs and newspaper editors, describing the Keg River situation and demanding government action. Her one-woman campaign stimulated a half-dozen editorials in the Edmonton Journal.
The government sent trappm's into the rabies area with cyanide, strychnine, guns and snares. They ran protective lines around backwoods
communities and a protective double belt from border to border of Alberta. By March 1954 an estimated 96,000 foxes, wolves, coyotes and lynx were destroyed. The disease now appears to be checked.
And, as the Edmonton Journal commented editorially during the campaign, “Albertans may be grateful to Dr. Mary Percy Jackson for her personal efforts to bring to official attention the fact that the epidemic was definitely not under control.”
Keg River people are grateful but then they’ve always felt that way.
They only hope the doctor stays another twenty-five years. One day soon the dirt road linking The Post with the Mackenzie Highway will be graveled, providing an all-weather road to hospital.
“Then there’ll be no moral obligation for me to practice,” she says. “But whether I’ll be able to stop I don’t know.”
Probably she’ll go on doing the work of two women. Keg River couldn’t get along without Mary Percy Jackson, MD. Neither could Mrs. Frank Jackson. if