This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99

Wilfred Grenfell made his doctor’s calls by dog-sled

Posted in Historical articles, History, Medicine, Missionaries on Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about Wilfred Grenfell originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 321 published on 9 March 1968.

Wilfred Grenfell, picture, image, illustration

Sir Wilfred Thomson Grenfell, the 'saviour of the sick' in Labrador

There was nothing young Wilfred Grenfell liked better than to be messing about by the water. He loved fishing, bathing, and even built his own “coffin-like” boat, The Reptile. But his most exhilarating pastime was to dive into the surging current of the River Dee, in Cheshire, and let himself be swept to the far bank.

During his school holidays, he accompanied the local fishermen on their expeditions to the Irish Sea, and when the fierce north-westerly gales struck the district, he helped them to secure their boats in the harbour. In this way he developed the deep respect and concern for fishermen which was to fashion the whole of his future life.

Wilfred was born in the small fishing village of Parkgate, on the banks of the Dee, in 1865. His father owned a boarding-school on the seafront, and it was there that Wilfred and his elder brother Algernon, were educated. When he was fourteen, Wilfred was sent to Marlborough College, where his shock of unruly hair won him the nickname of “The Beast.”

By the time he was eighteen, he had decided to become a doctor. He said that medicine made him thrill with “entirely new emotions,” and he obtained work as a dresser in the London Hospital.

His job there was to prepare badly-injured patients for operations, and to his astonishment he found that many of the cases were North Sea fishermen who had been hurt while bringing in their hauls. He discovered that the men were at sea for months on end without skilled medical help. When they were injured, they sometimes had to wait weeks before a doctor could tend their wounds.

As soon as he had qualified as a doctor, Grenfell decided to look after these men himself. He joined the crew of a trawler which had been specially commissioned to visit the fishing fleets and hold religious services. The Mission ship became a most welcome sight on the fishing grounds, and within a few years the Royal Naval Mission for Deep Sea Fishermen had no less than thirteen such vessels bringing guidance and medicine to the workers of the North and Irish Seas.

Then, in 1892, the Mission decided to send a hospital ship to Labrador, where some 200,000 people depended on fishing for their livelihood. Grenfell immediately volunteered to go, and, on June 15th, the Albert sailed from Yarmouth for St. John’s Harbour. On reaching its destination the small vessel made her way north along the foggy coasts until she anchored in the summer fishing-grounds, where Grenfell took care of more than 900 patients, including many sick children.

The voyage was both arduous and dangerous, but Grenfell wrote that he “greatly enjoyed the adventure. Mysterious fjords which wound out of sight into the fastnesses of unknown mountains, and which were entirely uncharted, fairly shouted an invitation to enter and discover what was round the next corner.”

This desire for discovery brought Grenfell back to Labrador in the following year. His new plan was to start a hospital at Battle Bay for both the white settlers and the native Eskimos. Grenfell had grown fond of the short, flat-featured, black-haired people who made a precarious living by sailing their frail kayaks in pursuit of whales and seals.

“The Eskimos are a merry, happy race of people,” he wrote “and very affectionate in their disposition. They endure pain with considerable fortitude. I have performed a number of surgical operations upon Eskimos, and when I have not given an anaesthetic, the endurance shown was such that one would almost imagine it was an inanimate object and not a human being that was under the knife.”

Grenfell now travelled hundreds of miles by dog-sled in order to reach his patients. He fought his way through blizzards and crossed perilous stretches of thin ice. One of his greatest concerns was the care of the many helpless children who, on the death of their parents, were left to fend for themselves. He once came across five starving youngsters stranded in an isolated hut after their father and mother had collapsed and died of influenza.

This experience determined him to raise money to build more hospitals, schools and orphanages. He organised lecture-tours in Britain, Canada, and America, and eventually gathered £200,000, which was used to house, feed and educate the orphans of Labrador.

By 1908, Grenfell was the acknowledged “Saviour of the Sick” in Labrador. The settlers and Eskimos knew they could depend on his help, however harsh the conditions might be.

One such urgent case nearly cost Grenfell his life. In April that year, he set out by sled across the melting ice to visit a desperately sick patient. As he was crossing a still-frozen bay, rain began to fall. Suddenly he found that he and his team of eight dogs were starting to sink into the slush. He managed to steer the sled on to an ice-pan where he prepared to spend the night.

As darkness fell, he had to face three hazards. There was the danger of the ice either breaking up, or else carrying him out to sea. And it had turned so bitterly cold that he could easily freeze to death. He did not have sufficient clothing to survive a night afloat, and he was forced to kill and skin three of his dogs. He used their carcasses as a windbreak, and wrapped the dogs’ skins around him to keep warm.

The next day, after hours of agonizing waiting, he was finally picked-up by a party of seal hunters returning from a trip. By then he was suffering from frost-bite and snow-blindness, and could not have lasted much longer on his own.

He realised that he owed his survival to his dead dogs and, when he returned home, he put a bronze plaque in his hall saying: “To the Memory of Three Noble Dogs, Moody, Watch, and Spy, Whose Lives Were Given For Mine On the Ice, April 21st, 1908.”

In the following year, Grenfell married, and took his young bride to live with him in Labrador. She proved a perfect “doctor’s wife,” courageous and understanding, and helped him in his work, which was only interrupted by the First World War, during which he served with a surgical unit, in France.

In 1927, by which time he was back again in his beloved northland, he was knighted for his services to the territory and its people. By then, his example had inspired scores of young men and women from all over the world to travel to his side and work as “Wops,” which stood for With-Out Pay.

Sir Wilfred Grenfell died in 1940, but even then he did not leave Labrador. His ashes were scattered, as his wife’s had been, near their home at St. Anthony.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.