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Medicare in Algonquin Park

by S. Bernard Shaw

Tommy Douglas' Cooperative Commonwealth Federation socialist government of Saskatchewan is given the credit for initiating Medicare in 1947, but the loggers and medical doctors in the Muskoka area had their own health insurance long before that. We are indebted to the forethought of Algonquin Provincial Park officials who instituted a series of interviews to record the experiences of individuals who had unique experiences in the park. One interview was conducted with Dr. Wilfred Pocock by Ronald Pittaway. It gives insight into the health care of lumbermen between the world wars.

It all began in 1874 when Dr. Francis L. Howland of Woodstock, Ontario, was encouraged by a guarantee from the local citizenry of $600 in his first year to establish a medical practice in Huntsville. He was a driving force in the growing community, founding The Huntsville Liberal (which changed to The Forester in 1877) and instituting a medical insurance scheme for the men engaged in the lumbering camps. A small annual fee would guarantee his services if the men fell foul of cough, cold or injury, all common hazards in those days. Dr. J.W. Hart joined Howland in 1886 and built Huntsville's first hospital on Chaffey Street. Several other doctors were attracted to Muskoka by the thriving lumber business, one of them being a Dr. Mason, who started a practice at Kearney.

Dr. Wilfred Theodore Pocock purchased Mason's general practice in 1920 and he and his wife, Audrey (Arnott), moved in to continue the Medicare tradition for the lumbermen in Algonquin Park. Wilfred was born in 1896 in the small village of Be-Be, near Sherbrooke, Quebec. The family moved to Brockville about 1901, where he attended elementary and high schools and graduated from business college. As the eldest son, Wilfred was groomed to take over the family's Dominion Glove and Snag-Proof Overall Factory at Be-Be, but persuaded his father to let him study medicine at Queen's University. The accelerated wartime education system had him commissioned as a captain in the Canadian Medical Corps and working at a hospital in England by 1916. After the war, he interned at Samaritan Hospital in New York and did postgraduate work in women's surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, also in New York, before reading in The Medical Journal that the practice at Kearney was for sale. Until his retirement in 1983, he was busy throughout the Parry Sound-Muskoka-Algonquin region as a general practitioner, medical officer of health, coroner, and staff physician and surgeon for district lumbering camps, highway construction camps and railways. He retired to Huntsville after a spell at Emsdale and lived on Florence Street for several years. It was there that Ron Pittaway visited him for an interview on Nov. 9, 1978.

Doctor Pocock explained to Pittaway that he covered Algonquin Park from the west while Dr. Willy Post looked after the eastern extent from Whitney. The logging companies paid him one dollar per month for each man on the logging camp payroll. "Even if (a logger) was there for only two or three days, he might take sick," the doctor explained, "so every man that appeared on the camp working table or working in the camp paid his dollar." In return, Pocock visited three or four camps, sometimes as many as six, every month during the logging season. Included in this fee was a monthly inspection required by the province to ensure that all provincial sanitary and health regulations were satisfied. He was also on call for emergencies at the logging camps and had a special telephone in his front hall that had no respect for lateness of the hour or condition of the weather.

Transportation to the camps was not easy. If not within reach of his horse and buggy, the railway could take him part of the way, but the camps could be as far as 20 miles from the tracks. When necessary, Pocock walked, carrying his grip containing medical instruments, medicine and a change of clothes. Sometimes the companies would provide a logging team or, if the road was adequate, a cutter to complete his journey. When a patient had to be evacuated, it was usually by a horse-drawn wagon to the railway, then a gasoline-powered "speeder" to Huntsville. Serious injuries went by passenger train to hospital at Orillia, Bracebridge or Toronto, accompanied by Pocock. The logging company would reimburse the hospital for public ward costs if the patient ended up in hospital, but Pocock would have to pay other doctors out of his own pocket for any services he was not able to perform himself.

"Of course, broken arms and legs were common, along with sprains and bruises and bad hits on the head or different parts of the body," the doctor recalled. The company would pay the wages of a man laid up with injuries received on the job for a limited time, but they were expected to continue working if they were suffering only from a common cold or cough. In the crowded sleeping quarters, coughs and colds were soon shared by all and were treated from a big bottle of medicine supplied by Pocock and replenished when necessary, courtesy of a co-operative train conductor. Sprains, similarly, were not considered worthy of special attention and were treated from a communal bottle of liniment.

Pocock made house visits, usually to help a new arrival into the world, to the small settlements at Brulé and Canoe Lakes. This often required an overnight wait for the next day's return train. Fortunately, he was also the Canadian National Railway's doctor, so he travelled free, but still had to charge about $20 for each confinement, and as much as $50 for difficult cases requiring visits prior to and subsequent to the birth. Families in the park had little cash: "Sometimes they would pay and sometimes they wouldn't," he said. "The folks had to be looked after; it was a different morality then."

Dr. Pocock's only son, Dick, remembers his father as "a wonderful man - idealistic; like other doctors of the period, he was never given credit for what he achieved." Dick Pocock kept the practice's books for several years before he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and offered an example of his father's business ethics: "I would query unpaid entries in the ledger and he would invariably reply, 'Just tear out that page and throw it in the waste bin: they have no way of paying.' Page after page went the same way, and the other doctors did the same thing." The Muskoka doctors joked among themselves that they knew if a woman was pregnant without examining her, as the husband would pay his outstanding bill to ensure the doctor's attendance at her next confinement.

Pittaway enquired if Pocock was ever required to look after livestock. "I have taken porcupine quills out of dogs and made up tonics and home-made remedies for animals," he replied. "I never saw a veterinarian in the park. Most of those men were teamsters and had their own cures. If a horse was so badly hurt that he couldn't be looked after, they always shot him. They would sew up wounds with linen, silk or even cotton thread."

Tom Thomson met his mysterious fate in Canoe Lake one year before Pocock settled in Kearney. Many years later, however, the doctor befriended Winifred Trainor, the famous artist's sweetheart. She told him that they could not afford to marry, which he felt was ironic because a few years later just one of his paintings would have set them up for life. "It's like a lot of others, we don't get fame until we are dead."

Pocock said Winifred had no categorical answer to the mystery of Tom's death, but they appear to have agreed that a heart attack could have caused his canoe to upset. Pocock hinted that jealous Martin Bletcher, the Trainor's unpopular neighbour, could have had something to do with Tom's death. Winifred never did marry and is reputed to have been somewhat unsociable in her later years. Nevertheless, Pocock found her to be a good friend and persuaded her to move her important papers from under her mattress to a safety deposit box and to appoint a lawyer. He also served as executor of her estate.

Wilfred Pocock spent his working life in the service of his fellow men and women. After retirement, he was busy with his dual hobbies of gardening and writing about his medical experiences. His interest in people and their origins was displayed in The Three Gifts, an ambitious historical novel written during the 1950s. His book traces events in the lives of the early English, Scottish and Dutch colonists in what is now New York State, interwoven with the conflicts felt by Canadians of French heritage and by Aboriginal peoples. The National Library's copy has a hand-written dedication in what is, for a doctor, remarkably clear writing: "To all my countrymen and countrywomen. God bless you and give you health and happiness. Sincerely, Wilfred Pocock, April 1962." His book was translated into French by the Cercle du Livre de France, and he was working on an autobiographical work, The Bitter-Sweet Years, when he died in 1987.

Virtually any community in the Ottawa Valley has a story to tell, but memories are fleeting and often unreliable. Assembling an accurate story is usually a co-operative venture. My interest in medical care of the loggers was tweaked by the 1978 interview by Ronald Pittaway with Dr. Pocock, found by Forester Jack Mihell in the Algonquin Park Archives. That led to a request of my Huntsville friend, retired librarian Audrey Dabner, to see if she knew anything about the subject. She found information in the local library, told me that Dr. Goeff Ascah knew Pocock, and obtained essential material from Barbara Paterson of the Muskoka and Parry Sound Genealogical Group. Those two individuals provided more insight into Wilfred Pocock's life and Barb Paterson led me to his son, Dick, in Oshawa. Enough material for a book, never mind a magazine article!

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 38, Winter 2002. Copyright S. Bernard Shaw.



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