New exhibit explores the bygone era of medical care in Newfoundland

For much of the 20th century, physicians in the Conception Bay area of ​​Newfoundland typically traveled with a portable apothecary, as pictured here. (Heather Barrett / CBC)

A new exhibit highlighting the contributions of medical workers in rural Newfoundland offers a rare glimpse into a bygone era in medical care.

The exhibit, titled Our Health, Our History: Healthcare Providers and Conception Bay Center, is held at the Holyrood Heritage Museum. It features artifacts dating back to the late 1800s and features the stories of more than 250 doctors, nurses and midwives.

The exhibit is the result of research by the Holyrood Heritage Society into the history of medical practices in the areas between Seal Cove and Colliers. This research produced the names of 192 nurses, 44 physicians, and 22 midwives who worked in the Conception Bay area in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as countless artifacts, and the stories continue to flow.

Holyrood Heritage Society President Linda Fraser said the response was so overwhelming that the group decided to delay their response deadline.

“It was Thanksgiving month and we said, ‘We are doing this to thank our medical profession,” said Fraser.

The lady with the lamp

“The symbols of nursing are all linked to Florence Nightingale,” says Karen Whitehorn, vice president of the Holyrood Heritage Society, referring to the range of capes, caps, metal pins and oil lamps on display at the event. of the exhibition.

“The Florence Nightingale lamp or lantern symbolizes when Florence watched her patients at night with her lantern, and it also symbolizes the passing of the flame when a new nurse graduates,” she said.

Linda Fraser, left, and Karen Whitehorn are president and vice-president of the Holyrood Heritage Society. (Heather Barrett / CBC)

The exhibit also includes a 1959-era nurse’s cloak – a standard outfit in the profession until the 1980s, Whitehorn said – as well as another Nightingale-inspired artifact: pins made from medals. of war.

“She received medals afterwards, and it’s also a symbol that has continued from there,” said Whitehorn.

The exhibit also includes a 1940s nursing to-do list, which includes tasks such as dusting and making beds.

“It was just a sign of the times,” Whitehorn said.

Call the midwife

But nursing isn’t the only healthcare professional to have seen significant changes since the mid-20th century, and a century-old midwifery bag on display at the exhibit reminds us.

“The stories of midwives really describe a very difficult life,” said Fraser.

Artifacts such as, from left to right, this so-called Florence Nightingale lamp, pin and hood were used by nurses for much of the 20th century, researchers say. (Heather Barrett / CBC)

In addition to household chores, including raising animals and running farms, midwives would give birth to up to 500 babies during their careers, Fraser said.

“They walked everywhere they went unless they were lucky enough to have a horse and cart,” Fraser said. “Some of them died in the line of duty.”

Although midwives took a back seat to hospital births in the mid-20th century, Fraser said, many visitors to the exhibit said they remembered the names of the midwives who gave them. brought into the world and their brothers and sisters.

“So it’s not that distant story,” Fraser said. “People still remember it.”


Among the 44 doctors known to have practiced at Conception Bay was Ennis Fraser, who Whitemore said was one of the only doctors known to visit patients on motorcycles.

Nurses generally wore capes when traveling to provide services. The cape was standard attire in Newfoundland and Labrador until the 1980s, says a representative from the Holyrood Heritage Society. (Heather Barrett / CBC)

The exhibit features a doctor’s office from the late 1880s, as well as the various ointments, pills, and fluids – some of them named after long-defunct St. John’s pharmacies like McMurdo – that were commonly found inside.

One such product, ether, an anesthetic rarely used in modern medicine, exemplifies the most horrific side of 20th century medicine.

“Often in the old days, tonsils were removed on the kitchen table, or their appendage and the dining room table,” Whitemore said. “So the doctor would take the tools home and do the surgery around the house, maybe with chloroform or ether.”

Our Health, Our History: Healthcare Providers and Center Conception Bay runs through Sunday at the Holyrood Heritage Center and Museum.

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