A medical symposium with lobster, forest fires

Paul Sparkes
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Apparently the lobster supper served at the Loon Motel was “superb.” Credit was given to Mr. and Mrs. Gill Decker and their staff as they did a fine job preparing and serving the meal for those attending the biennial medical convention held in St. Anthony in June 1975.

I think it might be fair to say there was nothing overly significant about the convention. It was one of a series in what Dr. J.H. Williams in the October issue of Among the Deep Sea Fishers called “part of the established way of life on the coast.”

Dr. Williams did report, however, that “the Education Committee becomes more ambitious each time regarding the scientific and social content of the program.”

Memorial University teamed up with the International Grenfell Association and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada to develop a program. One part was a discussion on “congenital dislocation of the hip in Indians”; another was “patterns of ear disease in Labrador” where there is a particularly common and distressing incidence of it among native peoples.

It is interesting to take a glance back at the three-day event … interesting to note who was there, what was discussed — just revisiting a point in time, really.

A copy of the October 1975 edition of Among The Deep Sea Fishers fell out of my bookshelf a few days ago. I picked it up, flipped through it, and then read scattered portions.

I have a habit of slipping magazines and leaflets, newspapers and pieces of newspapers in among books of a more robust nature. For instance, I have the copy of National Geographic which, in 1977, recounted the skin boat voyage from Scotland to Newfoundland of Tim Severin and crew. (They were determined to prove St. Brendan could have done it in the early 500s AD). I have a full page clipping from The Globe and Mail on the passing in May 2009 of Harry Oake Earle, 88, electrical engineer and Anglican priest and brother of Canon George Earle. I have a card with holes in it — something was pinned on it — bearing the wording, “Souvenir of the Opening of the Bonavista Branch.” That branch of the railway was opened in the early years of the 20th century. The small card (minus souvenir) must have been used by someone as a bookmark.

So, back to the report on the medical convention at St. Anthony. It took place over Thursday, Friday and Saturday, June 12-14.

Before the dinner at the motel, a reception was given by the Newfoundland Medical Association, hosted by its president at the time, Dr. Leslie Wells of Carbonear. Also attending was the Association’s “genial executive secretary” Gerry Lynch.

As the event coincided with the visit of Lt.-Gov. Gordon A. Winter to this northerly part of the island, His Honour and Mrs. Winter were invited to the lobster dinner as guests of honour. Sitting next to His Honour was the province’s new minister of health, Hon. Robert Wells, QC, “and his charming wife.”   

After the dinner, “the young in wind and limb enjoyed dancing to the music of one of the local groups.”

There was an interesting twist to this event at St. Anthony. As Dr. Williams reported, “The occasion did not go off without incident, however, as a forest fire blocked the road for several hours on the afternoon of Friday the 13th, and the Lieutenant-Governor and his party, who were on the Loon Motel side of the fire at one time, appeared to be the only persons likely to enjoy the lobsters.

“However, the local firefighters, with the help of a Canso water bomber aircraft, managed to bring the blaze under control in time for the main party to make the journey along the road safely.”

As with most conventions, there was a ladies’ program (now usually called a spouses’ program). In this case, things were organized by Mrs. Gordon Thomas and her ladies’ committee. The highlight of the program, again according to Dr. Williams’ report, was a barbecue at Fishing Point:

“V.S. Services Ltd., the hospital caterers, provided a baron of beef with trimmings, kept warm on a huge fire to combat the presence of ice which filled the harbour and was closely packed onto the shore. The sun, however, was shining and a little warm clothing was the only prerequisite for an enjoyable evening.

“The picnic was followed by a showing of the film ‘The Viking,’ produced in 1930 by

L. Varick Frissell with an introduction by Sir Wilfred Grenfell. The film was borrowed from the Provincial Archivist for the occasion.”    

The program of the ladies’ committee also included informal visits to the hospital, to the handicrafts department and a walk to the plaques … “the weather throughout remained well above average which contributed in no small way to the success of the meeting,” Williams noted at the conclusion of his report for the Grenfell Association’s quarterly publication.



It is also interesting to skip through the pages picking up scattered bits of information.

Rev. F.W. Peacock (1907-1985), whose name is particularly well-known in Labrador, contributed an article entitled “Missionaries, Shamans and Doctors of Medicine and Philosophy in Northern Labrador.”

In one part, Peacock writes about a group of Indians who had come out of the Labrador bush and into Nain in 1941. They were starving, some of them ill; they carried some fur with them, but otherwise had no means of trading or purchasing. The storekeeper in Nain brought the chief and one or two others to the mission house (the home of Rev. and Mrs. Peacock) so that Rev. Peacock could provide some medical help. The storekeeper in Nain claimed to know the Indian language, but his skill was limited to the language of trade, and not of medicine. Peacock says to communicate with the group he tried Eskimo, to no avail, then French, also to no avail.

Peacock wrote:

“There was one last resort and that was to use signs, perhaps man’s oldest method of communication. While this is by no means a perfect medium for communication on medical matters, we managed fairly well and after supplying our visitors with medicines, we sat back, feeling very self-satisfied, to enjoy a cup of tea with them.”

After tea, the chief stood up, removed a “disreputable” hat and said, very politely, in English, “Thank you, Sir, thank you Madam. We are most grateful to you.”

Peacock continued:

“There was a small smile on his face as he said this — and as we came to the realization that our sign language and charades had been totally unnecessary since our visitors knew the English language, but had been far too polite to point this out to us. …

“Or perhaps our pantomiming had provided them with the entertainment of seeing Whites making asses of themselves.”


Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email:  psparkes@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Royal College of Physicians, Grenfell Association, Education Committee National Geographic Globe and Mail Bonavista Branch Newfoundland Medical Association V.S. Services

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, St. Anthony Scotland Carbonear Northern Labrador

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