Medicine in Early Cochrane

Todays post is from page 89 of More Big Hill Country. The image is of the Davies House which once served as Cochrane’s Hospital and is now home to the Cochrane Historical Museum.

The first settlers came into the Cochrane area in the late 1880s and continued to arrive over the next twenty or thirty years. Medical theory and practise has changed a lot of course, from that time to the present. It is interesting to look back and read the stories of those people, our very own parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents and try to imagine ourselves in the same medical situations and how we would react. 

In those days … 

* The germ theory of disease, that infections are caused by bacteria and viruses, had only recently been accepted and taught to medical students and nurses. It was also very difficult for a doctor in a place like Cochrane to keep up with any new discoveries. 

* Anaesthetics such as nitrous oxide, chloroform and ether had just been discovered and were not available in the hinterlands. 

* Abdominal surgery of any kind was uncommon except in larger cities. For instance, the first appendectomy was performed in Europe in 1900. 

*There was no effective treatment at all in those days for communicable diseases, pneumonia, ear infections, mastoiditis, vomiting and diarrhea, “blood poisoning” 

* all common killers of both children and adults. 

* Babies were by necessity usually born at home often far from civilization. Mothers and babies often fed in childbirth done in the “natural” way without the help of trained midwives or doctors; Hemorrhage would be the commonest cause in easy delivery. Untreated toxemia could cause the death of either mother or baby or both. Sometimes the labour would on over many days without success and the baby or mother or both would die at that time or possibly a week or so later from puerperal infection. 

Mitford Days 

Tom and Lady Adela Cochrane built the town of Mitford in the early 1880s. In 1888, they convinced a young Dr. Hayden to come over from England to set up practice and run a drugstore in the town. One of Tom Cochrane’s first projects was a sawmill. He built a railway 

Horse Creek and over to Grand Valley to bring the ng down to the mill. Unfortunately, the steam engine was forever running off the track. On one occasion, the brakeman was found under the engine with severe head injuries. Dr. Hayden transported him back to town by wagon and he eventually recovered. Two weeks later, the engine was returning to the sawmill pulling four trucks of logs when it left the rails again pinning the engineer and broke two bones in his leg. Treatment of accidental injury would be a big part of medical practice in those days.Dr. Hayden left in 1891 but the drugstore remained open. Many home remedies would be sold there so people could use treatments handed down from grandmothers of past generations. 

A few stories survive illustrating other problems people faced before the turn of the century. 

Atkins Family 

In 1895, Harry Atkins brought a new bride to his homestead near where Cremona is now situated. His wife successfully gave birth to two daughters but in 1901, a son was born and the mother died either during the delivery or shortly after, leaving him with two young children and a newborn baby. The next year, tragedy struck again as the oldest girl died of pneumonia at age six. 

John McNeil Family

 His wife and three children arrived in Mitford in 1886. They had three more children there. She was in late pregnancy with her seventh when she got the news that while her oldest boy was away getting supplies, his team of horses ran away and dragged him to death. Mrs. McNeil went into labour a few hours later and died while giving birth. The next spring, the Bow flooded their Mitford home and the children had to climb to the roof before being rescued. The baby boy died soon after. The four girls were put in a convent in Calgary and the son Joseph went to live in Cochrane. The next winter, Joseph died of appendicitis. His father John helped dig his grave in Cochrane, developed pneumonia and died three days later in the hotel in Cochrane. It is not often that so many tragedies as this would happen to one family but it does illustrate the dangers faced by pioneers. 

Dr. Harbottle

 In 1907, late in his life came from Ontario with a grown son and daughter. They all homesteaded in the district. He never opened a practice but he was often called by his neighbours in times of illness. He helped Mrs. Oldaker through a bout of erysipelas, a serious very painful skin infection that lasts a long time. In those days, the treatment was likely to rest, heat, elevation, and relief of pain and hope for the best. The old doctor was found by neighbours one day, he had died alone in his homestead home. One of the problems in those days was that many bachelor homesteaders lived alone far from neighbours. It was not uncommon for them to be found dead days or weeks after a serious accident or illness because they had no way of calling for help.


Doctors came and went but the ladies that helped deliver the annual crop of babies were the most valued and valuable medical service in the district in those days. Many of them had nursing training but some had learned what to do from their mothers or grandmothers. Most mothers of necessity had their babies in their own homes far from their neighbours. The brave nurse-midwives would be out all times of the day and night in all kinds of weather sometimes leaving their own families to fend for themselves as they sat through long labour or nursed someone through a serious illness. They charged no fee as they knew the time would come when they might need a neighbour’s help themselves. 

The names of some of these ladies keep cropping up in the stories told by old-timers; Mrs. Hugh Robinson, Mrs. Oliver Mickle, Mrs. Jimmy Patterson, Louise Tempany, Mary Hughes, Mrs. Boucher, Mrs. Lancons, Mrs. Urquhart, Granny Hogarth, Mrs. Anderson, Mrs. Dawson, Lura Gano, Maud Lewis, Hilda Beard, Nancy (Harbidge) Boothby, Nurse Roberts. Others took in maternity and other patients in nursing homes or their own homes in Cochrane and they are mentioned elsewhere.

Dr. Andrew Park

First resident physician in the town of Cochrane. He graduated in 1904 and came immediately to Cochrane to set up practice. He was unmarried and lived in the hotel at first. His office was upstairs in the Fisher Block. There were no cars and no roads so he rode horseback on his rounds to patients in the large area he served.

In those days, most patients were treated in their homes and the doctor made his rounds from home to home as often as necessary carrying his surgical instruments and medications with him, If they were so sick they couldn’t look after themselves, there was usually some neighbour who could help. In 1906, he married a teacher from his hometown in Ontario and they set up housekeeping in Cochrane. At this time he bought a horse and buggy to do his rounds. He later bought one of the first cars in Cochrane. In 1915 Dr. Park left Cochrane to serve in the armed forces during World War 1. 

A few stories told by his patient’s highlight problems faced in that era.

Hank Bradley; in 1913 at the age of six years had one of his fingers chopped off by a man cutting a soup bone off a shank of frozen beef with an axe. The boy was holding the beef so it wouldn’t slip at the time. The man who wielded the axe soaked the wound in saltwater and wrapped it in a towel while he went and caught and harnessed a team of horses. Then he had to go to a neighbour to borrow a democrat before he could take the boy to the doctor. The doctor had to tie him down to work on his finger. 

John and Lucy Morgan homesteaded in the Bottrel area. Lucy went into labour on November 24, 1908, during an early winter blizzard and a temp of -20F. They sent their 13-year-old son by horse and sleigh to fetch Mrs. Dawson, the midwife, who lived seven miles away. She gathered up her equipment and back they went through the cold and driving snow. It was a complicated labour so Dr. Park was called from Cochrane. He hitched up his horse and cutter and arrived sometime later. Luckily the brave mother was finally presented with a healthy baby. Because Lucy was confined to bed for a day or two, Mrs. Pogue came and stayed with her until she was well enough to look after her family. The next year, Mrs. Pogue had a baby at home so she sent her two children over for Lucy to look after while she too recovered from her labour. A Neighbour helping neighbour allowed people to survive. 

Lou Shands was hauling firewood in the bush in 1905 when his team ran away. He was thrown off and broke his leg badly. He was hauled to his home on a stone boat and someone rode into town to get Dr. Park. By the time the doctor arrived many hours after the injury, the leg was so swollen that after it was set the cast would not hold it properly. He was eventually left with a marked limp. In 1945, Lou took seriously ill on his farm right after a blizzard had closed all the roads. This time a more modern ambulance, an airplane, took him to hospital in Calgary. Such a change in one man’s lifetime. 

Edith McKinnell and her husband John homesteaded in the Bottrel area after arriving from Scotland. Edith had been brought up in a rich family with servants to do all the work. It was quite a culture shock to come to an area where only the very basics of life were to be had and where she spent months without seeing another woman. All five of her children were born in her home without medical help with only her husband to assist. Sadly, the first baby died at birth but luckily the rest survived and thrived. 

Elizabeth Winchell and her husband Frank homesteaded near Water Valley. Two of her babies died at birth at home but one son survived. 

Dr. Thomas Ritchie 

Dr. Ritchie arrived in the Cochrane district in 1904 with a wife and family of eight children. He had been practicing for a long time in Virginia USA and it appeared he had done well financially and moved here to invest and farm rather than continue doctoring. He bought a small ranch near Mitford that is now part of the Morley reserve. He also purchased land at the mouth of Jumping Pound Creek. There he ripened and sold the first wheat ever shipped from west of Calgary. Of course, he couldn’t refuse to treat people if they needed help when Dr. Park was away. In the fall of 1919, his car overturned in the ditch during a snowstorm and he died from his injuries three days later. 

Some stories survive that involve this doctor. 

Dave Bryant was six years old when he fell off a horse and broke his arm. He was taken to Cochrane but the doctor was away so they took him to Dr. Ritchie’s ranch. There the doctor with the help of his son was able to set the bones. No anesthetic was used. Alcohol, morphine and cocaine were about the only means of relieving pain that doctors had in those days. A child of six could be held down by a strong man while the bones were reduced. This seems cruel but it had to be done so there was no alternative in this case. 

William Tempany froze both feet hauling hay in the winter of 1906. Dr. Ritchie was sent for and came from his home on the ranch to do what he could for him. Part of one foot had to be amputated later. 

Anne Steel was knocked down by a horse and broke her leg. Dr. Ritchie came to their farm by horse and buggy to set it. For a cast, they wound strips of bedsheets soaked in hot starch solution around the leg. As it cooled and dried, it hardened enough to do the job. 

Communicable Diseases spread unchecked because of the lack of immunization and few medications that were effective. 

Smallpox still occurred although vaccination had been available for many years. In 1908, an epidemic occurred in Cochrane. Tents were erected down by the river and anyone with smallpox was sent there. Guards were stationed on the roads and at the railway station to prevent anyone from entering or leaving the town for any reason. These guards carried rifles and enforced the quarantine to the letter. Rev. Sale, the priest at All Saints Anglican Church at that time, rode into town on horseback to visit a parishioner without knowing about the quarantine. When he was challenged, he ignored the order to stop. He stopped in a hurry when a shot was fired over his head. When no more cases occurred, every resident had to take a bath in an approved disinfectant before the town was declared safe and the school could reopen. 

Scarlet Fever was a serious disease in those days before penicillin. Many adults and children died from its effects and many developed rheumatic fever, kidney problems and chronic ear infections as complications from the disease if they survived. In 1910, it was prevalent in the district. Jack Dowson and his niece Lily Johnson died from it. 

Diphtheria took the lives of many children. They would suffocate because a membrane would sometimes form over the breathing passages, or the toxins from the disease would affect the heart, kidneys or nerves. In 1898, the Scotty Craig family was infected and the oldest son died at age 10. Andrew and Suzanna Nagy lost two of their oldest children to the disease in 1915. In 1924, Elizabeth Phillips (nee Skinner) in the Lochend area, died from diphtheria leaving her husband with three young children to raise. It was not until the 1930’s that a vaccine was available although an antitoxin was available prior to that. Antibiotics, of course, were not discovered until the 1940s. 

Typhoid fever was also present in the district because wells could be contaminated by poor hygienic practices and there were always carriers of the disease in those days. In 1882, Elizabeth Sibbald died from typhoid, and in 1907 Thurman and Elizabeth Ault lost a son from the disease. In 1911 John Boothby was treated for typhoid fever in the relatively new Davies-Beynon hospital by Dr. Park. In 1917, two of Mrs. Davies’s granddaughters died of typhoid fever. The disease is now controlled by strict public health measures regarding water supply and sewer systems. 

Measles, mumps, chickenpox, whooping cough and rubella went around every few years and in those days every child would catch most of them over the childhood years. It was not until the 1940s that the whooping cough vaccine was used and the 1960s that measles, mumps rubella vaccine was available. Chickenpox vaccine didn’t come along until about 1995. It was rare for one to die from these common diseases but serious complications sometimes occurred. 

Child Mortality 

One of the saddest parts of pioneer life was the large numbers of infants and children that never reached the teen years. Besides the babies that died at birth, there were many that succumbed to complications of communicable diseases, infections of all kinds, and vomiting and diarrhea possibly due to lack of a safe water supply. Lack of availability of medical and nursing care would be a factor as well. 

Mr. and Mrs. Andy Clarke opened a butcher shop in Cochrane in 1914. Out of their nine children, two died in infancy. No diagnosis is given. 

James Hewitt Family homesteaded near Cochrane and later ran a pool hall and barbershop in the town. Out of their family of thirteen, three died in infancy. 

James Quigley Family raised a family on land in the east part of present-day Cochrane. Out of nine children, two died in infancy. 

Since there was no cemetery at that time, the Hewitt and Quigley children were all buried on the Quigley farm. When the new cemetery opened, they were all disinterred and moved there. 

Rev. David Reid in 1932 came to the United Church in Cochrane. While living here in the manse, they lost their youngest daughter. As usual, no diagnosis was given. 

Bert and Lizzie Sibbald had five children. They lost a daughter at age twelve in 1930. 

Samuel and May Spicer lost their first child in 1911 to some unknown disease at the age of eighteen months.

Clem and Peggy Edge lost daughter Margaret at 18 months of age from a “heart seizure”. 

Charles Harbidge, out of six children born in the Cochrane area after 1905, one daughter died at age eight and one son at age thirteen. 

Mel and Christine Weatherhead had a new son born about 1909. While Christine was upstairs looking after the baby, her two-year-old son downstairs had a convulsion of some sort and died. Christine, being postpartum, became severely depressed and blamed herself for the tragedy. 

Earl and Letha Whittle had a family of four children in 1912. Six-year-old Gladys suddenly died of pneumonia that year, and two months later ten-year-old Claude died of a “heart condition” 

Robert and Edith Beynon had three children. One died in infancy and another at the age of two. Only one son survived. This was around 1930 in the town of Cochrane 

Maternity, Nursing Homes and Hospitals 

Mrs. Richard “Dickie” Smith (Amy) Her husband died in 1902 on the ranch which later became known as the Virginia Ranch in the Dogpound area. Amy went back to England with her three children to study to be a midwife as she could see the need in this area. In 1903 she set up a nursing home in Cochrane in a log building set back from the street about where the back of the Grahams Building sits now. Mrs. Smith’s nursing home closed after she remarried in 1905. The house later became the Yee Lee laundry. 

Mrs. Jack Boldack Used her house as a maternity home and nursing home for several years in the early 1900s. She was a midwife herself but the doctor would sometimes be called to help. 

The Davies Hospital 

By 1910 Dr. Park needed space for patients that required hospital care. The Thomas Davies family was building a townhouse in Cochrane and they were persuaded to build it a little larger so part of it could be used for hospital patients. It seemed a good fit since Margaret Davies lived there and could preside over it and her daughter, Annie Beynon, had nursing training and could handle that end of the business. This hospital served Cochrane from 1910 to 1915, when it was closed because Dr. Park had left for war service and Mrs. Davies was in poor health. 

“Quigley House” Hospital 

The house at 402 Carolina Drive became a nursing home after Dr. Park left. May Coatsworth was head nurse and Mrs. Campbell Roberts was the administrator. Both were well-trained midwives. The dates of the operation of the hospital are uncertain but in 1917, May married Angus McDonald and left. After her marriage, May continued to act as a midwife and do a lot of home nursing in the district as far north at Bottrel. 

Mrs. E.C. “Dad” Johnson 

The 1918 influenza pandemic hit Cochrane hard. There was no hospital or doctor at that time. Mrs. Johnson was an R.N. so she turned her home into a hospital for the worst cases. It was still in use as a maternity and nursing home as late as 1925. Mrs. “Jappy” Rodgers and Bernice Linfoot both had babies there within hours of each other in 1922 and John Claude Copithorne was born there in 1925 with Dr. Waite in attendance. 

Dr. William Saunders 

In 1905, he came out with his father, mother and even siblings to homestead in the area near the junction of Lochend Road and Highway 567. In 1913, he proved up a quarter section of his own in that area. He studied medicine and graduated in time to assist Dr. Waite in his practice for a short time. He lived on his homestead so he was too far away to be of much help and moved to Calgary shortly after to open a practice. 

Dr. Waite 

Since Dr. Park had decided to move to Calgary after the war, Dr. Waite and his new bride Mona arrived in Cochrane in the fall of 1919. Mona was a nurse so she turned part of their first home into a nursing home and took in patients and delivered babies there. In 1923, they bought the drug store from Mr. Smythe and renovated it to include living quarters. They lived there the remainder of their time in Cochrane. Mrs. Waite did mot take in patients any more but helped in the drug store and assisted the doctor on his rounds. Dr. Waite was a busy man in the fifteen years he lived here. He died in 1934. Cause of death is not known but he couldn’t have been much older than forty years. After his death, the drug store was sold to Mr. Hart. 

A few stories remain of medical problems that Dr. Waite faced in those days. 

Ted Cook just before Christmas 1919 was shooting partridges with a double-barrel shotgun. He killed three with the first shot but a wounded one tried to flutter away. Forgetting that he had cocked both barrels, he used the butt of the gun to knock the bird down causing the hammer to be released on the loaded barrel shooting him in the hip. 

It took several neighbours to get the doctor out through the deep snow and transport Mr. Cook into the nursing home in Cochrane where he spent the winter recuperating. 

Louis Garlin was a widower baching on his homestead and came down with pneumonia. Dr. Waite had been out to see him several times and a nurse helped him during the day. Paul Swanson and Arthur Wells were to sit with him one night as the doctor didn’t think he would live long. The men shaved him and cut his hair so he wouldn’t go to heaven unshaven and unshorn. Dr. Waite had given them a bottle of brandy and they were to give him an ounce every four hours to help him on his way. Instead of an ounce of brandy, they decided to give him two and a half ounces. Along about 4 am. Louis began to sing. He eventually recovered and lived to be 90 years of age. He always believed that the brandy had saved his life. It was probably as good a treatment as any they had in those days. 

Jack Reid fell and broke his leg one day when he was a teenager. He saddled his horse and rode out to the field to tell his dad. This required him to get off and on the horse several times to open gates and close them. His father didn’t think there was much wrong so he rode home to tell his mother, opening and closing gates as before. By the time he got home, there was no doubt that it was fractured. Dr. Waite was in the district on another case so he came and treated it. 

Ed “Boney” Thompson, while riding a bucking horse in the summer of 1921 he fractured his pelvis with complications of a punctured bladder and other internal injuries. He was up along the Little Red Deer River eighteen miles from the nearest phone and much further from the closest medical help in Cochrane. Laurie Johnson rode to the Mount Royal ranch and phoned Cochrane to send the doctor out. Dr. Waite arrived in his Model T with his tools and instruments but the road went no further. The next eighteen miles the doctor had to ride a horse. He was able to give Boney enough narcotics that they could move him into a wagon and survive the rough ride down to the ranch. Another car took him directly into the hospital in Calgary as they knew he would require surgery. Sadly, he died soon after at the age of forty-eight. 

Mrs. Tom Zuccolo went into labour on their ranch south-west of Bottrel on a cold January 8 morning at 2 a.m. A 14 mile trip over snow-covered roads with a team and sleigh got her to Mrs. Johnson’s nursing home in time for Dr. Waite to deliver a healthy little girl. 

Gordon Moore son of Alex Moore was watching one of the earliest cars in town go by. He thought he would catch a free ride by grabbing a door handle. He got a ride alright but also dislocated his elbow. Dr. Waite was able to reduce it and he got a good result from a serious injury. 

Jimmy Patterson was sixteen years old when he got scarlet fever. He got complications, infected mastoids and pneumonia and was near death in Cochrane where he had been ill for many weeks. With no X-rays to guide him, Dr. Waite decided to drain the infected fluid from the lung. His diagnosis was correct, the surgery was successful, and the boy recovered. The ear and mastoid infection caused him to become deaf, however. 

Dr. Rivers was a friend of Mr. Hedley Hart who had purchased the drug store from Mrs. Waite after her husband died in 1934. The country was in the midst of the depression, Cochrane had no doctor and the druggist somehow convinced Dr. and Mrs. Rivers to come to live here and help out for a time. They lived in the big brick house at the corner of Pope and First street E. His office was in the house but he treated patients and delivered babies in their homes as there was no hospital. Dr. Rivers would be the last resident doctor in Cochrane until what we consider “modern” times. 

Bob and Alice Graham bought the Hart drugstore and ice cream business in the mid-1950s. This store, and the brand new big store which they built later, became by default the centre of medical care in the town a: there was nothing else. Bob as a pharmacist and Alic as an R.N. could not refuse to give first aid and advice to their friends and neighbours when asked. Alice was often called out to emergencies as well. The Calgary doctors also might ask her to check blood pressures, give injections, remove sutures, or change dressings for the local patients. The Grahams did this gratis for many years. During this time, Dr. Milne and Dr. Prowse would come out occasionally to help out when necessary but there was no resident doctor. 


This takes us up to about 1960. By now, antibiotics were in general use, mothers had their babies in hospitals, hospitals had X-rays and laboratory tests to properly diagnose disease and injury, and children were protected from most communicable diseases by immunization. Better roads and cars were allowing people to access medical care from their distant farms and ranches. Cochrane and district now entered the modem medical age and the many different but still serious medical problems that we now face. 

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