Canada

The Labrador doctor

October 23 2000
Canada

The Labrador doctor

October 23 2000

The Labrador doctor

Canada

History

The path up Tea House Hill winds through thick woods until it comes to a small clearing containing the large boulder inside which Sir Wilfred Grenfells ashes are sealed. Those remains had quite a journey: from Vermont, where the English-born medical missionary and social reformer died of a heart attack in 1940 at age 75, to three separate memorial services in Boston, New York City and St. John’s, Nfld. But Grenfell’s final resting place was always destined to be beside his wife, Anne, atop a quiet hill on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula.

By John DeMont

in St. Anthony

From there, visitors can see the blue waters on which he sailed north to Labrador, the stark land that stirred his imagination, heart and ambition. And, of course, they can look down upon the town of St. Anthony, the main base for the medical, philanthropic and religious mission movement that transformed his name into a worldwide symbol of selfless service.

St. Anthony—population 3,000— does its best to promote his life and legacy. He was larger than life—a hero and humanitarian whose personal charisma and adventurous spirit not only made him an international celebrity, but also helped attract huge sums and worldwide attention to his cause. So, it is no surprise that St. Anthony, which had a population of about 200 when Grenfell opened his first permanent hospital there in 1900, has turned his burial site into a nature trail and transformed his home into a museum. Grenfell Regional Health Services Board, which continues to provide health care throughout northern Newfoundland and southern Labrador, still bears his name, as does a park and the

Grenfell Interpretation Centre, which last year drew 12,000 visitors interested in his life. And even now, 60 years after his death, it is still possible to meet people living in the settlement whom Grenfell has touched. “It is such an inspiring story,” says Jane Johannessen, the supervisor of allied health services at GRHS, who moved from her native Sweden to St. Anthony in 1974 to help carry on Grenfell’s work. “He was driven to try to do great things under the most difficult circumstances.”

From the start, he seemed bound for glory. Grenfell’s path was set at age 22 when the medical student wandered into a London revival tent to hear a pair of American evangelists speak, and emerged vowing to devote his life to practical Christianity. In 1892, the 26-yearold with the missionary bent was aboard the hospital vessel Albert, under the auspices of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, a British charitable organization, bound for Labrador to investigate conditions among the migrant

By ship and dogsled he brought care to forgotten souls

His real genius was for fund-raising and attracting volunteers who bought into his humanitarian vision

fishermen and year-round folk who lived there. The people he met impressed him as “uncomplaining, optimistic, splendidly resourceful, cheerful and generous.” The conditions in which they lived, though, were worse than in any London slum. “Deformities were untreated,” he wrote after that initial voyage. “Tuberculosis and rickets carried on their evil work unchecked.” He returned a year later with two doctors, a pair of nurses—and a cause large enough to consume all his energy, drive and reformer’s zeal for the next 47 years. The popular image of Grenfell remains frozen in time and myth: an uncomplaining so-called muscular Christian travelling by dogsled and steam-driven hospital ship to bring desperately needed health care and Christian teachings to the forgotten

souls in a faraway corner of the world.

But his real genius was for fund-raising and attracting volunteers who bought into his humanitarian vision. It helped that Grenfell was a subject of interest to reporters from the United States, Canada and Britain who helped to raise public awareness of the “Labrador doctor” who was devoting his life to improving the lot of the downtrodden. Grenfell added to his own legend through international tours and his 33 books—including Adrift on an Ice Pan (1909), his account of his adventures on the ice floes, which went into 18 editions. By the 1920s, the New Yorkbased International Grenfell Association ran a string of four hospitals and six nursing stations along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador, and Quebec’s north shore. The founder

was an international celebrity and was knighted in 1927.

Dr. William Fitzgerald, 36, who came to St. Anthony in 1976 and is chief of surgery at the GRHS, fears that people like him and Johannessen may be among the last drawn to St. Anthony by Grenfell’s example. “The people who work here have different priorities today,” he says. “Many of them just view it as a stepping stone to elsewhere.” Grenfell, on the other hand, stayed and built a legacy that lives on to this day. CD