Friday, May 26, 2006

Wilfred Grenfell's Collection

For forty years Wilfred Grenfell, a British doctor, traveled up and down the coast of Labrador, in the summer by steamer, in the winter by dogteam, treating the poor inhabitants. On one occasion he was stranded on an ice floe with his dogteam and soaking wet he almost froze to death. He finally decided that he should make one further attempt to extend his life by a few hours and killed and skinned three of beloved his sled dogs and wrapped himself in their fur. He was rescued a few hours later.

Here is an another incident he describes in his autobiography, Forty Years for Labrador. 1933. It gives you some idea of what kind of man he was and the work he did.

    We had anchored among a group of islands to give the people a chance of coming aboard the hospital ship. Suddenly a boat bumped our side, and a woman climbed over the rail with a bundle under each arm. On my chartroom table she laid the two bundles and proceeded to untie them.

    'There is something wrong with them, sir,' she explained. Examination showed that, although their eyes looked right, both chldren were as blind as kittens with congenital posterior polar cataracts.
    'Have you any other children?' I asked the mother.
    'Yes, four.'
    'Where is your husband?'
    'Killed by a gun accident three months ago.'
    'Then how do you manage to keep food for the babies?'
    'Indeed, I can't.'
    'Whatever are you going to do with them?'
    'I'm going to give them to you, Doctor.'
    When we got under way it was rough, and the babies made such a noise that the helmsman stuck his head into the chartroom, which was directly behind the wheelhouse, to see what could be the matter.

    'What are you going to do with those, sir?'
    'Shh. They're blind and quite useless. When we get outside. we'll drop them over the rail.'
    He stared at me for a second before he turned back to his wheel. A few minutes later in popped his head again.
    'Excuse my being so bold, but don't throw them over the side. We've got eight of our own, but I guess my wife'll find a place for those two.
    I did not throw them overboard; neither did I send them to the home of that modern saint. I simply added them to my collection.

    In various ways my adopted family grew at an alarming rate, once it became known that we were acting the role of unofficial residuary legatee for derelict children.
And so the story goes, as Grenfell and his sailors enter the houses of the poorest of the poor. He continues,

    Curiosity led us to peep inside, though there were no signs of life. Suddenly one of the boys, looking up at a hole in the low ceiling, exclaimed, 'Why, there's someone looking down at us through that chink.' In a trice he was up on the lofting. 'There are four naked kiddies up here,' he called down.
Once again a mother was found with her baby and she begged the doctor to take and feed her starving children,

    Vermin, the inevitable accompaniment of poverty and squalor, had not been avoided even though the children had no rags to cover them. How could we take them back in our jolly-boat, over the seven miles of open sea, without clothing? In a second every boy with me had his coat off, and a well-clad child in his arms. What a credential of modern youth that act was! When we left, the poor mother brought up the rear of our procession carrying the baby. Today that little family is fed, clothed, going to school, and started on the road to a useful life. Forty Years For Labrador. page 153
The poverty of Labrador during those years is one of Canada's saddest stories. Grenfell rescued those children he could, but many died of malnutrition.

Wilfred Grenfell spoke at the Inter Varsity Fellowship at McGill and Gordon Thomas (PDF) a young medical student at the time, never forgot what he heard. Eventually he and his wife Patty took over the adminstration of the Grenfell mission. When I was little they used to visit my parents and tell stories of the mission and orphanage.

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