The Florence Nightingales of the Columbia Basin

Medicine and Medical Practitioners In East Kootenay

t is interesting to speculate on the type of maladies the First nations people of this area suffered before the advent of the white man. Illness in pre-contact times would have been: traumatic in origin, resulting from births, accidents and battle wounds; nutritional, arising from a scarcity of food, and; the infirmities of the ageing process. Infection would have played its part as well, in contaminating open wounds, but the original people lived a nomadic existence and never remained in one place long enough to pollute their surroundings, thus eliminating environments in which certain germs could multiply.

The Ktunaxa Nation emphasized the chokecherry and Saskatoon berry as being important dietary items, thus eliminating many diseases resulting from dietary vitamin deficiencies. The roots of the Oregon Grape and the bitter root plants were used as medicines. The braided hair of the mother was used at childbirth to tie off the umbilical cord The Ktunaxa evolved an efficient and complimentary use of their natural and spiritual environment when addressing health care needs.

By 1898 the white man’s infectious diseases such as Small Pox, Diphtheria, Scarlet Fever and Measles were well established in the Columbia Basin.

Some of the early explorers had qualified medical men in their parties, but these doctors seem to have recorded little or nothing of their medical experiences. They became known mostly for their observations on the flora, fauna and topography of the country. Names such as Hector of the Palliser Expedition, and Stellar are known to us because of their association with birds, animals, fish and mountain passes. It is unfortunate that they did not record a few more medical facts.

Father DeSmet may have been the first white man with some medical knowledge to practice the art of healing in the Columbia Basin. in 1845 he recorded finding deplorable conditions of starvation on Tobacco Plains, which he spent much time and energy treating.

During the Kootenay, Big Bend and Perry Creek gold rushes (1864-1870) thousands of men exposed themselves to deprivation and untold physical hardships. The long winters caused hunger and starvation. In the heat of the summer unexplained fevers, often resulting in death, were not uncommon occurrences. In those times there were few or no doctors available.

During this period a potential doctor would have been first apprenticed to a chemist. The apprenticeship contracts were strict and included moral as well as work specifications. In the 1880s and 1890s university training came to the forefront, producing most of the doctors who were to practice at Nelson, Golden, Fort Steele and Cranbrook.

In 1887 Surgeon Powell entered the area with the North West Mounted Police. He soon became very busy treating a strange fever which produced several deaths. Powell himself became ill and another Surgeon was sent in. The epidemic became worse and a disagreement arose between the two doctors. One said it was “Putrid Malignant Fever” whereas the other diagnosed “Slow Nervous Fever.” It is now thought that the NWMP experienced an epidemic of Typhoid Fever. The Typhoid bacillus which caused the disease was discovered in 1880 but would have been almost impossible to detect or diagnose in the conditions available to a doctor at Galbraith’s Ferry in 1887. Oster, in his early teachings, said the cause of Typhoid was due to imperfect sewage disposal and a contaminated water supply, and was spread by fingers, food and flies. Twenty-four years later the nurses-in-training at the St. Eugene School of Nursing were learning facts like these and taking the knowledge throughout the Columbia Basin.

Father Coccola established a four bed hospital at the Saint Eugene Mission in 1897. He provided the only medical services in the area between the departure of the North West Mounted Police in 1888 and the arrival of Doctor Charles McLean, Physician and Surgeon, at Fort Steele in 1895.

Dr. McLean remained in Fort Steele for two years, until his practice was bought out in 1897 by Hugh Watt, a doctor from the Cariboo. In November of 1897 Dr. Watt moved from McLean’s old office next to the Oriental Hotel in Fort Steele to his new residence and office on Riverside Avenue, beyond Mrs. Levett’s. A former MLA from Cariboo, Hugh Watt was also owner-editor of the Fergus, Ontario News-Record prior to becoming a doctor.

Itinerant specialists did visit Fort Steele from time to time. In 1897 Dr. N.J. Lindsey of Calgary, N.W.T., arrived prepared to treat diseases of the eye, test for errors of refraction and fit glasses. In the same year Dr. Binkley passed through, staying briefly at the Steele House and offering dental services to one and all.

With the beginning of construction on the Crow’s Nest pass Railway in 1896, more demand was placed on medical services. Contractors engaged the services of Doctor Watt for the East Kootenay section.

Fort Steele, B.C.
Surgeon to C.P.R. Construction Camps

Monday-Hospital, Cranbrook and McCarthy’s Camp.
Tuesday-Camps as far as Wardner.
Wednesday-Camps on return trip.
Thursday-Mission hospital.
Friday-At home.
Saturday-Mission Hospital.
Sunday-At Home.
(Subject to change on special call.)

Dr. Watt expanded his practice by bringing in Doctor Brodie, a native of Scotland. Dr. Brodie established his office in Cranbrook and attended to railroad cases west of that point.


As well as his general practice, Dr. Watt was also appointed by Gold Commissioner Armstrong as Health Officer for the Fort Steele Mining District, with headquarters at Fort Steele. It would appear that this service had become a necessity, as a July 3, 1897, letter to the editor of The Prospector testified:

“…regret that the general appearance of Steele is marred by lack of tidiness. I am not sufficiently acquainted with British Columbia laws to know just whose is the duty but surely, Mr. Editor, there is someone who is responsible for its cleanliness: Whose business is it to look after the latrines at the place; particularly those belonging to the hotels? Whose business is it to look after the back yards and particularly those where the public are freely admitted? And whose business is it to prevent all sorts of filth being emptied in the streets of the town? The hot months of summer are coming and there are plenty of germs in process of development to breed business for more doctors than you have at present.”

Dr. Watt finally departed Fort Steele in 1912 for Elko, presumably selling his practice, including the Indian medical work, to Dr. Maxwell. When the Fort Steel Jubilee Hospital closed its doors in 1914 the townsite lost access to a medical practitioner, and all patients were forced to travel to Cranbrook.

Dr. Frank William Green was another medical pioneer who offers an opportunity to experience medical conditions as they would have been in the early 20th century. He came to East Kootenay in 1898 at twenty-two years of age, freshly graduated with his medical degree from McGill University in Montreal. Hired by the Canadian Pacific Railway as a surgeon, he was left off at the end of rail in a place called Goat River Crossing, near present-day Creston. Presented with a horse, an extensive kit of surgical instruments and a small variety of medicines, he was told to “go to work.”

Clearly his training would not have prepared him for some of the predicaments he was faced with. Bill Green told one story of his father which would not have been covered in university. During railway construction there were few women associated with the camps. Occasionally, however, an adventurous nurse would help out, especially during an epidemic such as the typhoid epidemic that swept the railway line. On one of Dr. Green’s first visits to the Kuskanook camp, he found the workmen in hot pursuit after a terrified white nurse who had just arrived. In some way or another he, along with a Negro nurse, managed to get the woman into a rowboat and row her in choppy waters around a jut of land to safety.

Dr, Green and Dr. King, who was working an eastern portion of the rail line from Cranbrook to Elko, were both paid $100 a month. “Neither one of them could afford to pay their dues to the B.C. College of Physicians,” said Bill Green, “and so they didn’t have a provincial license.” For that reason they avoided each other, fearing that one might notify the College on the other.

Certain medical supplies were also distributed to the camps by the doctors. Such things as liniment, dressings, bandages, adhesive tape, aspirin and cough mixtures were doled out to the men as required.

Both men experienced much the same conditions. Their medical knowledge was limited to that taught in medical schools, and they were literally let off at the end of the line and told to go to work. Twice a month the doctors patrolled their sections on horseback. Sometimes this meant a ride of thirty miles or more a day. As a rule at the end of this journey they found no sleeping accommodation, and were forced to provide for themselves, usually using their saddles as pillows.

To quote from The Medical History of British Columbia (1932):

“In the summer of 1898, typhoid swept through the country. The old log hospital at Goat River Crossing was filled with typhoid cases, and the overflow had to be provided for in the town. At the height of the epidemic the hospital staff, which consisted of a cook, and three male nurses, resigned and the doctors had to attend the patients, cook for them and bury the dead. The unfortunate doctor had to make all funeral arrangements and carry out the funeral service. In one case the men refused to carry a coffin and the doctor was obliged to pay each man $2.00 to have the coffin carried a few hundred feet. The doctors were young men who had just graduated and their method of treatment was somewhat crude. It is said that in their right-hand pocket they carried a quantity of lead and opium pills, and in their left-hand pockets, compound catharitics. The usual treatment was to administer either one kind of pill or the other according to the patient’s condition, and evidently, from the popularity of the doctors, their system met with some success!”

Finally meeting in the Cranbrook Hotel in late 1899, with the railway work almost concluded, Doctors Green and King decided to strike up a partnership. Recorded as Cranbrook’s first doctors, they had contracts with the railroad and lumber companies which covered almost 1500 people. The main industry at that time was lumbering and within a short distance of Cranbrook at least four mills were operating. Not too far away large sawmilling operations were current in Jaffray, Bull River, Yahk, Ryan, Wardner, Baker, Wattsburg, Waldo and Wycliffe. All had a contract with the Cranbrook doctors and the Saint Eugene Hospital for about $1.25 a month per man – covering medical and hospital care and drugs.

Doctor Douglas Corsan, another railway doctor, also established offices in Fort Steele in 1900. He was located next door to Bleasdell’s drugstore.

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