Labrador medical

Hans Rollmann
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In 1709, 300 years ago, Sophie Agnes Waiblinger, wife of a Protestant minister in the Duchy of Wurttemberg, gave birth to a son, who received the name of his father, Christoph Jacob. His parents did not then imagine that the boy would conclude his life's journey thousands of miles from home in the newly founded community of Nain, Labrador.

Able surgeon
At age 11, Christoph Jacob Waiblinger was apprenticed to an able surgeon who passed on his consummate professional knowledge and skills to the youth, who in turn became a capable and sought-after surgeon.
In his early 30s, Waiblinger, then married, made the acquaintance of Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, the leader of the Moravians. This meeting and his own ardent religious disposition led eventually to the education of his son among the Moravians and Waiblinger's association with the Brethren at Marienborn and Herrnhaag near Frankfurt.
After a rich professional life as a surgeon, Christoph Waiblinger came to stay in 1773 at Fulneck, Yorkshire, where his son Christian Frederick and his older brother lived. The Moravians still maintain a reputable public school at Fulneck, counting among its alumni prime minister H.H. Asquith and actress Dame Diana Rigg.

Call to Labrador
While living at Fulneck, the retired surgeon received a call to come to Labrador and replace as medical practitioner superintendent Christoph Brasen, who had just died in a tragic boat accident north of Nain.
On his arrival in Labrador in August 1776, the 67-year-old Waiblinger administered medical care not only to the European missionaries, but to the Labrador Inuit.
Among his patients was a little chid, "who had fallen from the berth because of carelessness and whose hips had swollen and who was injured on the head."
Within a few days, the child recovered. More complicated was a serious case in which a woman had received such a blow to the head from her husband that she fell unconscious and appeared to be near death.
Waiblinger's medical intervention brought the woman back to life, and after a counselling session with the remorseful husband, the couple was reunited.

Healing ministry at Okak
In 1776, the mission station Okak was founded north of Nain and became the largest Inuit settlement on the coast until its closure in 1919, after the global influenza epidemic of 1918 had decimated the community, killing all male adults.
In the winter of 1777-1778, Waiblinger was called to Okak to assist some female missionaries in childbirth. By then, however, his own health was so feeble that he could not even sit on a komatik. The aged surgeon made the arduous trip strapped onto a sledge.
On arriving in Okak, Waiblinger not only served the missionaries, but found great demand for his services among the Inuit of the region. Here, he helped people who no longer were able to walk and others who suffered from hernias. Notable is one case, which was recorded in the German mission diary of Okak for February 1778.
"On the 28th, in the afternoon," the diary reads, "Panniunajok came running hurriedly from Kivallek to request some medicine from Brother Waiblinger." His little son, "4 years old, who is severely blind, had fallen into a boiling-hot pot and had burned the entire back all the way down, so that already all skin was gone." According to the report, "he was immediately given medical aid, for which he was very grateful."
A few days later, the little boy "was brought … by his mother on her back." By then he "had already improved nicely, and the burn had been extinguished entirely through the medicine, so that no bad consequences are expected."
Waiblinger returned from Okak to Nain and served until his own health gave out and he died Sept. 20, 1778. He was buried in the old cemetery at Nain, where his grave can still be seen today.

'Much loved'
Although the time of his stay in Labrador was short, James Hutton, a prominent British Moravian, reporting Waiblinger's death to the American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, lauded him as "very skilful and much respected in his own country" and "much loved by the natives (of Labrador)."
During the two years he spent in Labrador, the medical missionary became interested in local healing plants and produced from partridgeberries a powder that was used to induce labour in women. Waiblinger's hand-written recipe book, containing his pharmacological knowledge, is preserved among the Labrador archival materials housed in the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pa.

Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial
University. He can be reached by e-mail at

Organizations: Brethren, Moravian Archives

Geographic location: Labrador, Nain, Okak Herrnhaag Frankfurt Yorkshire British Moravian Bethlehem, Pa.

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