Health Care in Ancient Chapleau

By George Evans

Lady Minto Hospital in 1920
This photo shows the Lady Minto Hospital in 1920

Health was precarious in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Before �miracle drugs� stymied infections and before serums and vaccines tamed the common childhood killer-diseases, death struck often and hard. This was especially true in small, remote bush communities along the CPR main line, where hospitals and professional medical help were often several hours away by train. This was especially true for the very young.

A vigilant stroll through the old cemeteries in Chapleau makes this clear. In the Catholic Cemetery, 74 burials between 1888 and 1918 have inscribed headstones. Of these 74 memorialized interments, 44 (59.9%) were children who died before their 5th birthdays.

What kind of medical assistance was there for the ill and injured in the �good old days�?

Vincent Crichton�s book, Pioneering in Northern Ontario, deals with health care in Chapleau incidentally in chapters on other subjects. Thus, I could pull together only a fragmented picture of what was available to Chapleau�s earliest inhabitants. Those few who remember the early days of medical care here could add much to what is presented here.

Just before the turn of the century, in a building at 21 Young Street North, the seriously ill who were waiting for a train ride to hospital in Sudbury or North bay were attended by Mrs. Marie Ad�le Lafrance, who is not recorded as having any formal medical training. Mr. Crichton calls this arrangement �a first aid centre.�

A few years later, on the north side of Elm Street, a Miss Sutherland, who had come to Chapleau as one of the first teachers as the Indian Residential School, opened two beds in her home as a �Cottage Hospital.� There, Miss Sutherland, who was not a Registered Nurse, tended the sick and injured �under the supervision of the local doctor.�

From these tidbits of information, it appears that nursing in Chapleau�s beginning years was usually done in the home by the family or, in more serious cases, in someone else�s home by kind-hearted, well-meaning amateurs such as Mrs. Lafrance and Miss Sutherland.

The names and years of service of Chapleau�s pioneer doctors are hard to determine. In connection with Mrs. Lafrance�s �first aid centre, Mr. Crichton mentions a Dr. Arthurs, who seems to have lived in Chapleau, and a Dr. McMurchie, who visited from North Bay.

Health care in Chapleau took a giant step forward in 1914 with the opening of the Lady Minto Hospital, across Elm Street from Miss Sutherland�s �Cottage Hospital.� As the first hospital between Sudbury and Fort William (Thunder Bay), the Lady Minto helped to fill an immense gap in hospital service in northern Ontario and greatly enhanced the chances of recovery for those CPR employees injured in accidents along the line.

The money for the new hospital was put up by public subscription, with the CPR and the Victorian Order of Nurses contributing $5000 and $3000 respectively.

To help with operating costs, an early form of health insurance was set up for CPR employees. Married men who contributed $1 a month got a reduced rate when they or a member of their families spent time in the hospital. Single men paid 50� a month for the same deal. wilkinson (35K) When the hospital was built, there were two doctors in town: Dr. Steve Wilkinson, who in 1915 married Elsie McKinnon, the matron at Lady Minto; and Dr. J.J. Sheahan, who was �House surgeon and Physician in charge� of the hospital.

(The photo dating from the mid 1920s shows Dr. Wilkinson with his wife and son Lorne.)

In 1916, the good people of Chapleau showed their appreciation of Dr. Sheahan�s service to the community by presenting him with a brand new Ford. It was black with nickel-plated door-handles and nickel-plated rims around the headlights. It was the first automobile in Chapleau and Dr. Sheahan is reported to have quipped that �instead of babies coming in a little black bag, they will now come in a little black car.�

At that time, the road out of town only went as far as the old hydro plant whose ruins can be seen beside the bridge near Syd�s Service Station. His patients knew that Dr. Sheahan couldn�t go far in his new car. Indeed, Dr. Sheahan stayed in town, continuing to practice, until his death in 1942.

With construction of the Lady Minto Hospital in 1913-14, the health of the people of Chapleau became much more secure. Now-a-days, the new Chapleau General Hospital, air- and land-ambulance connections with larger centres, and the incredible advances in medical science assure Chapleaunians that their health is better protected than could have been dreamed of a century ago.

This was written by George Evans, based on material found in Vincent Crichton�s Pioneering in Northern Ontario and the author�s reading of tomb stones in the old Roman Catholic Cemetery.

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