More than a century ago, British surgeon and medical missionary Dr. Wilfred T. Grenfell came to this province with one goal: to serve the many needs of the coastal settlements of Labrador and Northern Newfoundland, especially the fishermen who lived and worked in these areas. Today, Sir Grenfell’s legacy lives on in the International Grenfell Association (IGA), which provides support for local communities through funding for a variety of non-profit organizations.
In 1892, Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, a young doctor working for the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, arrived from England on the coast of Labrador. His task was to visit the coastal settlements, including those of the northern peninsula of Newfoundland, to report on the living conditions and health needs of the resident cod fishermen and their families. What he witnessed changed his life.
The harshness of their existence and the total absence of any form of healthcare so moved him that he resolved to dedicate his life and make it his mission to address their welfare needs. Under the auspices of the RNMDSF he raised funds to build hospitals, the first situated at Battle Harbour on the Labrador coast, near the Strait of belle Isle, as well as to purchase sailing vessels for travel up and down the coast and to recruit staff to help him.
Ahead of his time he recognized that health was more than just the absence of disease. He understood that adequate housing, sanitation, nutrition, education and income were equally important determinants of a person’s well-being. He possessed a profound Christian faith and believed that a vital part of his mission was also to spread the Word of God and attend to the spiritual needs of those living on the coast.
As a man-of-action, a “muscular Christian” and a social reformer he addressed these challenges with the same vigor that he applied to the development of health services. Over the course of the next twenty years he set up cooperatives, provided religious services, established a handicrafts and industrial unit, built orphanages and schools, and encouraged healthier eating by growing vegetables and even introduced a reindeer herd to provide extra meat. All this in addition to expanding the network of health services on the coast.
A charismatic individual and a gifted speaker, he soon became very successful at spreading the word of his work on the coast and at influencing the rich and powerful in the eastern United States, especially Boston and New York, Canada and England to raise funds to support his mission. In many locations his supporters formed Grenfell Associations, which not only carried out fundraising but also recruited hundreds of young volunteers, known as WOPS or “workers without pay”, who came to the coast to help out during the summer months.
Grenfell was a man of great zeal, brimming with new ideas and forever pushing out on new fronts. As one might expect, his eyes were constantly on the bigger picture. He disliked the detail and avoided it whenever possible. He relied on those around him, especially his wife, to provide that day to day supervision while he advanced on his new initiatives. As his organization grew so did the reliance on fundraising and, importantly, the stewardship of those resources.
Throughout this period of intense activity Grenfell was still operating under the auspices of the RNMDSF in England. The lines of communication and authority between both parties appeared to be somewhat blurred at times and frequently this gave rise to frustration. Meanwhile his supporters in New York and elsewhere were suggesting that a more business oriented approach was necessary in order to achieve the steady stream of finance that was required and that more effective management systems should be introduced. The RNMDSF agreed and to answer these joint concerns the International Grenfell Association was created, finally becoming incorporated in 1914.
The establishment of the IGA, twenty two years after Grenfell arrived on the coast, marked the separation from the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen. At the inaugural meeting in 1914, at the Harvard Club in New York, Dr. Grenfell was “formally appointed as Superintendent of the International Grenfell Association, subject to the nomination of the RNMDSF”. While this position in no way altered his role on the coast it did make him accountable to the Board of the IGA, which intended to be much more assertive about how the services were run.
In the following years Dr. Grenfell’s fame grew and his exploits entered the stuff of legend. He became a household name and enjoyed what might now be termed celebrity status. He was knighted in 1927, received many other accolades, became a prolific author of books and continued a punishing schedule of public speaking across the globe. All this effort took its toll and gradually he and his wife spent more time at their retirement home in Vermont. He died there in 1940, a year after losing his beloved wife.
Few of Sir Wilfred Grenfell’s achievements would have been possible without the many competent and dedicated professionals who responded to his call and came to the coast to deliver the work on the ground. The roll-call of such people is long and their collective contribution remains as great as that of Grenfell.
During the last decade of Grenfell’s life the leadership of medical services on the coast lay in the competent hands of Dr. Charles Curtis. During his tenure, efforts were focused more on providing high quality healthcare and gradually less emphasis was placed on the social reform agenda inspired by Sir Wilfred Grenfell. Legions of young doctors and nurses came to the coast to contribute their skills. Many stayed and took over key positions up and down the coast. Dr. Gordon Thomas succeeded Charles Curtis and continued the development of health services, and significantly the battle to overcome TB. A new hospital was opened in St Anthony in 1968. This became the vibrant clinical hub, providing most general surgical and medical specialties, with complementary services located in North West River, Goose Bay and coastal nursing stations.
By the late seventies the cost of healthcare had risen way beyond the financial capacity of the IGA, with the provincial government providing the bulk of the funds. The IGA entered into discussion with the provincial government and a transfer agreement was reached in 1980. All the healthcare assets of the IGA were handed over to the NL Provincial government for the sum of one dollar and healthcare services on the coast then became part of the provincial health system, fully managed and administered by government.
Having thus withdrawn from direct involvement in healthcare services the International Grenfell Association entered a new phase. It became a Charitable Foundation and used its endowment resource, together with contributions from the Grenfell Association of America (GAA), the New England Grenfell Association (NEGA) and the Grenfell Association of Great Britain and Ireland (GAGBI) to fund grants for worthwhile projects on the coast. To date in excess of Can $40 million has been granted to over one thousand projects on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland and coastal Labrador. These have addressed community development, education, scholarships and health related initiatives.