GRENFELL MISSION HEROINES
Nurses working in the isolated outports of Newfoundland, Labrador, and Quebec did it all. They pulled teeth, sewed up wounds, saved animals, and delivered many, many babies.
DR. CHARLES CURTIS did not hold back on his praise for nurse Ethel Currant: “No matter how weary and exhausted Miss Currant was, she never failed to answer a call for help,” Curtis wrote in an article published in Among the Deep
Sea Fishers in 1945. “Last October she was called to an obstetrical case twenty miles from her station. When she arrived she realized that she was up against a very serious case….”
Curtis went on to describe how Currant put the patient in a boat in heavy seas and had her taken to the nursing station at Flower’s Cove, a hamlet near the tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula: “With the help of a very efficient local woman, Miss Currant was able to do an operative delivery and save the life of mother and baby.”
Curtis, the medical superintendent of the International Grenfell Association, understood better than most how important nurses such as Currant were to meeting the medical needs of people in isolated coastal communities of northern Newfoundland, Labrador, and Quebec’s Lower North Shore. In Among the Deep Sea Fishers, the official publication of the association, he referred to them as the “backbone” of the Grenfell Mission, a philanthropic medical organization established in 1892 by British physician Sir Wilfred Grenfell.
Before Grenfell arrived, the Newfoundland government occasionally sent a doctor up the Labrador coast on a mail boat or sealing vessel, and the Moravian Mission provided basic medical services to the Inuit in northern Labrador. But otherwise there were no hospital facilities, no resident doctors, no nurses, and no continuous medical care in this part of the country. When Grenfell undertook his first medical expedition in the region in 1892, travelling along the coast through “ice and snow and gale” on the hospital ship the Albert, he was appalled at what he found.
“They found whole settlements that had been wiped out by diphtheria,” said an article in a 1903 issue of Deep Sea Fishers. “Wounds, no matter how frightful, were treated by squirting tobacco juice into them and binding tightly with an old rag. But even tobacco and rags were wanting in many places, for the Albert found settlements where the children were almost naked and had to live in the very back of the hovels to escape freezing to death.”
The medical missionary vowed to help “the unhappy souls that were imprisoned in ice for half the year, and cursed with privation and sickness always.” He developed a network of regional hospitals and nursing stations staffed by highly qualified doctors and nurses from around the world. The first hospitals were built at Battle Harbour (1893) and Indian Harbour (1894), and by the 1960s the mission had expanded into the interior of Labrador. While much is known about Grenfell, who wrote several books about his larger-than-life exploits, the mission’s nurses were every bit as heroic. They were relied upon to use their best judgments in dealing with medical emergencies — a responsibility they often carried out alone.
Ethel Currant was a typical Grenfell station nurse. She was British and was trained as a midwife. She was posted at the nursing station at Flower’s Cove, a community not large enough to warrant a hospital. Officially, nursing stations fell under the authority of medical directors based out of the Grenfell hospitals. However, since the stations were separated from hospitals by vast expanses of ocean and/or rugged coastline, nurses like Currant exercised a significant amount of professional independence.
Independence suited her, as, like her counterparts, Currant had a keen sense of adventure. Before arriving in Newfoundland, she had nursed in India, Zululand (South Africa), Guatemala, and British Honduras. She spent five years at Flower’s Cove, responding to constant calls.
“Although she was always on the move, travelling many miles on foot, by dog team in winter and by boat in summer, she still found time to develop and cultivate extensive and productive gardens and to preserve great quantities of food — fish products, vegetables, and berries, keeping her own station well supplied with very palatable food,” Curtis wrote in 1946 as Currant was about to return to England.
Since they were the only medical personnel in the district, nurses on the stations had to become adept at assuming whatever role was necessary for the well-being of their patients and the smooth running of the station. The indefatigable Jean Smith reflected on her first couple of years with the Grenfell Mission, also at Flower’s Cove, in an article in Deep Sea Fishers in 1947: “When I left England two years ago I little expected to have such a many-purpose job. The trained staff of one has a variety of duties to perform, among which are those of housekeeper, cook, farmer, butcher, gardener, painter, carpenter, general overseer and handyman, clothing-store-keeper, accountant, nursing and dentistry besides.”
Smith was from a very able British family — her father, grandfather, and brother were all doctors. Smith herself was highly recommended by Grenfell medical alumni in Britain. In Deep Sea Fishers, Curtis praised her abilities: “The district is seventy miles long, including two thousand people, and is wholly dependent on this one nurse for medical assistance. During the ‘ flu’ epidemic Miss Smith was called upon night and day to see sick people, sometimes thirty or forty miles away.” Smith later took up posts at stations in North West River and Cartwright in Labrador and served for fifteen years before returning to England.
ravel, sometimes hazardous travel in what the locals called “dirty weather,” was a standard part of nursing with the Grenfell Mission. The hospitals and stations covered large geographic districts with numerous outlying and sparsely populated communities. Until the 1940s, there were three modes of travel to reach patients: by foot, by boat, or by dog team. The latter was the nicest, “though it has its thrills and spills,” Canadian nurse Ella Hewitt wrote in Deep Sea Fishers. Hewitt described one such trip: “The man on the flying trapeze had nothing on us as we sailed down [a steep] hill amidst racing, barking dogs and shouting men, anxious to reach the bottom right side up! I grasped the sides of the coach box and held my breath as we charged into the settlement at the foot. … It was a most thrilling trip!”
After the Second World War, bush planes and snowmobiles were increasingly used to reach patients. But these modes of travel brought other dangers. Nurse Jean Calderwood was involved in a plane crash in 1946 while trying to reach La Tabatière, Quebec, where an influenza epidemic was raging. As they were approaching Tête-à-la-Baleine ( Whale Head) they noticed smoke coming from the engine.
“[ The pilot] took one quick look over his shoulder and started to dive,” Calderwood recalled in Deep Sea Fishers. “There was no time to pick a spot to land; we just went down at what seemed a terrific speed — a hundred miles an hour. The landing was anything but smooth, we bounced and pitched and all but rattled out of the cabin. We could plainly see the flames outside the window and finally, when the plane came to a stop, the flames were licking up through the floor boards. We wasted no time in getting out. I fell flat on my face under the plane because of my slippery skin boots. … We all gathered at about fifty yards and watched the baggage, first-class mail, and my big black bag go up in smoke. We had no time to get these out since the plane was a roaring inferno almost immediately.”
Communication was also a challenge. During emergencies, nurses could reach physicians by wireless, but this was not always reliable. Radio-telephone sets were in all the stations by the midtwentieth century, but fog often played havoc with reception, and there was no guarantee of getting through.
Despite the difficult working conditions, the mission rarely
UNTIL THE 1940S, THERE WERE THREE MODES OF TRAVEL TO REACH PATIENTS: BY FOOT, BY BOAT, OR BY DOG TEAM. THE LATTER WAS THE NICEST, ‘THOUGH IT HAS ITS THRILLS AND SPILLS.’
had trouble recruiting nurses. Some felt called to serve people in need, while others desired the unique professional experience the mission offered.
The nursing stations usually consisted of a dispensary, four to six beds for in-patients, and an outpatient clinic. It was while treating outpatients that the Grenfell nurses experienced the most professional autonomy. With no physician present at the stations, it was the nurse’s responsibility to see every case that came in the door, determine their needs, and take the necessary action. Even in the smaller hospitals at Harrington Harbour, North West River, and Cartwright, if the staff physician was away on a medical trip, which could last for several weeks at a time, it became the nurse’s responsibility to see everyone who came to the hospital for care. As a result, nurses at the stations and the smaller hospitals took part in the diagnosis of patients to a greater degree than nurses in larger, more conventional hospitals.
They also performed emergency first aid at various levels of difficulty, especially cleaning and suturing lacerations of arms or legs and treating septic fingers and abscesses. The wounds associated with the lumber industry were often the most traumatic. In 1944, a young Canadian nurse from Vancouver, Alice Phillips, was posted to the nursing station at Roddickton on the east side of the Great Northern Peninsula, an active logging district. Although she was a recent graduate and had no previous experience in outport Newfoundland, she accepted the post when no one else was available during the Second World War.
Curtis reported on one of her experiences: “Miss Phillips wired me late one day that she was bringing a man with a traumatic amputation of the leg. At two o’clock in the morning after a twelve-hour ride, an open motorboat chugged into the harbour. Going to the wharf we found Miss Phillips and her patient, who was covered with canvas and surrounded by hot water bottles. His leg had been torn off above the knee when his clothes were caught in a moving belt. Miss Phillips had given him intravenous glucose, tied off the bleeding vessels, sprinkled the wound with sulfa powder, and wrapped the stump in sterile dressings. We took charge of the patient, and I told Miss Phillips to go to bed and stay in bed all the next day to get a rest. She replied that she would go to bed for a few hours but she must return at daylight back to her post because there were a lot of people who needed her attention.”
There were many of these types of accidents in the fishery, the lumber industry, hunting and trapping, or the everyday business of life in rural areas. British nurse Ivy Durley performed so much emergency first aid that she reflected: “[S]ewing up axe wounds, opening abscesses comes fairly easily; in fact when you find yourself the one to do it, it almost seems as if you have been doing it always before.” Durley enjoyed the work but also felt “a good deal of anxiety in having the full responsibility.”
Nurses were also expected to provide veterinary care. Nurse Iris Mitchener recalled that “cows, dogs, and chickens, have all featured in the outpatient book! The cows suffered from intestinal upsets, the chickens ‘ drooped’ according to their owners, and
one dog had a dislocated shoulder. One is expected to be able to deal with all these minor calamities.” They were not always the calmest patients. An August 1943 report from Flower’s Cove in Deep Sea Fishers noted, “a dog was brought in last week, paw torn on a nail. Nine sutures were needed. What bawling!”
Dentistry was another challenge for Grenfell nurses. Lack of dental hygiene was a widespread problem in the region, largely due to the lack of dentists and the local diet of “potatoes, white bread, milkless tea with molasses; not to mention the numerous candies,” wrote Smith in a letter to another nurse. Since nurses had no formal training, they had to learn dental procedures on their own, and not without apprehension. Faced with her first extraction, Canadian nurse Mary Taylor recalled getting out a metal syringe and a vial of local anaesthetic: “I set to work, hardly knowing which way to put it all together, but eventually did so. I injected the anaesthetic around the offending tooth and did the extraction successfully, but not, however, without causing my young patient a lot of discomfort.”
Within months of arriving at Flower’s Cove, Durley had already pulled “dozens of teeth” and felt quite used to it: “My good strong arms have served me well on the men’s back molars,” Durley wrote in a letter to another nurse. Lesley Diack, who authored the book Labrador Nurse, wrote that she became so adept at “hauling teeth” that she actually extracted one of her own and was “agreeably surprised to find how painlessly [she] extracted teeth.”
Midwifery and obstetrical work were also routine, which is why the mission required that head nurses at the stations also be midwives. Patricia Cowley had so many maternity cases at the beginning of one month at Port Saunders that she wrote in a letter, “it was like the [capelin] coming in.” In 1950, nurse Dorothy Jupp described in Deep Sea Fishers an autumn rush of deliveries at her station. By the time she got to the last delivery, the “supply of sterile goods had been used up, but the kitchen oven was pressed into emergency service” and they soon had enough to use. Jupp also ran out of room for the babies and had to put two in a cot, with one at the top and one at the bottom.
Some deliveries were harrowing experiences for both mother and nurse. In a letter written in 1947, Durley described a “bad spell” with a woman in labour who had blood poisoning and eclampsia, a condition characterized by high blood pressure and seizures. “She very nearly died on us,” Durley wrote. She went on to describe how she called another nurse, and “together we tackled her. I applied forceps but both of us at full blast could not budge the head. … On account of her serious toxic condition, we could not try anything further, so had to put her under morphia, and start frantic plans for her removal to St. Anthony. She started a hemorrhage later which we eventually controlled by 2:00 a.m. This loss was good insofar as it reduced the likelihood of further fits, but [it] weakened her considerably.”
Durley wrote that she was struck by a feeling of “utter helplessness” during the delivery and by how frightening it was that “help was so utterly out of reach.” Nurses were not trained to perform Caesarean sections. When they recognized that a complicated delivery was beyond the scope of their practice, they did whatever they could to save mothers’ lives and transferred them to the nearest hospital.
The mothers were unreservedly grateful to the nurses. One new mother wrote in 1949: “Except for the resourcefulness and cool-headedness of Miss Jupp and the advantages of the hospital at St. Mary’s River I would not be able to write these few lines today. I am deeply indebted to Miss Jupp, to the Grenfell Mission, and to God Almighty for saving my life at the recent birth of our son. Many thanks to all concerned.”
By stitching up wounds, pulling teeth, and delivering babies, the Grenfell nurses were in fact the “backbone” of the organization, as Curtis stated. The mission continued to provide medical care for the region well into the twentieth century. After Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949 it received additional funding from the federal and provincial government, and in 1981 the organization handed all of its nursing stations, hospitals, and other medical resources over to the province.
Today, the Labrador- Grenfell Regional Health Authority delivers medical services to the area formerly under the Grenfell Mission’s care. Grenfell remains active as a private foundation and regularly awards grants to non-profit organizations for improving the health, education, and social welfare of people in northern Newfoundland and coastal Labrador.
The map shows the location of Grenfell nursing stations and hospitals in Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula, Labrador, and Quebec's Lower North Shore, circa 1940.
A nurse stands by as Dr. Wilfred Grenfell examines a young patient being held by a woman, possibly also a nurse, at Harrington Harbour, Quebec, circa 1905 to 1915.
Nurse Kathleen “Jo” Lutley displays snowshoes.