Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
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Thrown In: The Doctor
The Canadian Magazine of Politics, Science, Art, and Literature, July 1921

The stork had been hovering over the village, and in response to prevailing rumours there was much conjecture as to where it would alight first. Old Mrs. Finlayson (rest her ashes!), who had been midwife to the community ever since babies began to come our way, expressed the fear that she would be flitting about like a devil’s darning-needle, with all three cases on her hands at once. She was one of those aged persons who always have been full of years and who go on living, decade after decade, and seeming never to grow older. She had heard that a young doctor was about to settle in the village, and she observed that it would be a good time for him to start, for there was enough business in sight to keep him in practice for a whole month. After that, if he had luck, there would be an outbreak of measles, a ravage of shingles or a visitation of the itch. In any event, somebody would be sure to want a tooth extracted, a broken arm reset or a bottle of bitters to be used against failing appetite. 

Appetite, happily, was a manifestation which with most of us failed not. Indeed, if we needed the doctor at all it was to alleviate the results of over-eating. We had colds, as a matter of course, and attacks of heartburn; Miss Pringle had chronic headache, Mrs. Jackson a constant pain in her side, and old Bill Pearson had rheumatism so bad he couldn’t sit still in church. 

In church, they used to say, it was that most of them first saw the doctor. Word had been passed round, stirring their curiosity, that he was to be there, otherwise none but the ever-faithful would have turned out on the coldest and stormiest night of a cold and stormy winter. And when they saw him, they used to say, they saw the tallest man in the congregation; and when he walked down the aisle he at once established himself as a man of superior bearing, superior personality, and superior attainment. He was large in proportion to his height, and his wavy brown hair lay back thick from a high forehead. He had mild blue eyes, firm features and a countenance that, even if grave, denoted intellectuality, good judgment, and kindliness. It was whispered about that he was a bachelor and that he was going to board for a while with Dougald MacLaren, a farmer whom Joe Morris in harvest time used to divert from his trade by paying him for pitching sheaves the astounding wage of forty dollars a month and everything found. 

But now the time of year was the very opposite from the harvest. It was indeed the dead of winter. A great mantle of snow lay upon the ground, and still it was snowing. All the sidewalks were blocked, and it was against great odds that the farmers had come to worship. Some had come in bobsleighs, some on horseback and some afoot. And while it was possible for them to come, it looked as if it would be impossible for them to return. For a great wind had arisen and the snow was forming into immense drifts, drifts that here and there blocked the highway and choked the main village street. Against that wind and through those drifts no span of horses could venture, no man afoot could wend his way. 

But there was one man who had to make a way. That man was the miller. He told afterwards how he came down the slope from his house, leaving his wife with the pains on her and making a way through the snow, which was knee deep above the fence, upon the top of which he walked with dire uncertainty. He went down by the side of the mill, crossed over on the edge of Tufford’s field, and by sheer perseverance reached the corner of the blacksmith’s shop. From that point he floundered out into the middle of the street and by turning his back to the wind managed to reach the church door. Jessie Littlejohn used to tell us that when he turned the knob and walked in she thought sure it was a ghost. For the miller was whiter than the flour he ground between the upper and the nether stones. He stood for a moment panting, and then, right in the middle of the sermon and much to everyone’s consternation, he walked up the aisle, laid a hand upon the doctor’s shoulder and whispered in his ear. Everyone knew the portent of that whisper. 

The doctor bent down for his cap before standing up to put on his buffalo coat. Then he and the miller together walked down the aisle and out into the storm. Their exit almost broke up the service, for it was impossible that anyone could follow the sermon while thoughts of the miller’s young wife rushed in, while in fancy appeared the picture of the two men struggling through the snow. And there had been also the premonition that the miller’s wife would not pull through. She was so frail and so young! And nobody but the doctor ever knew how she fought for her life, how she tried to rally her strength when she heard the first faint cry of her little one. 

“I came a day too late,” said the doctor, and next morning there was crape on the door. 


The doctor took for his office the front room of the house where he boarded. It was a small office, but quite large enough for the extent of his practice. The equipment was not great. For the peculiar requirements of his profession he had a leather case of lances and small knives, a galvanic battery, several forceps, a roll or two of sticking plaster, some shingles for splints, a long flat knife and a walnut board for mixing salve and rolling pills, a mortar and pestle, a tiny scale, and several rows of bottles and jars that contained such drugs and febrifuges as iodine, laudanum, paregoric, quinine, tincture of arnica, pepsin, strychnin, santonin, camphor, tincture of gentian, tincture of iron, Turkish rhubarb, Epsom salts, calomel, sweet nitre, ammonia, saltpetre, sulphur, lard, and that abominably distasteful cathartic jalap. 

The lard was home rendered, like the tincture of gentian, which always was held in a “gem” jar, with the dark brown roots visible in the liquid. And it had an important place in the scheme of economy, for lard was the basic element in all the salves and ointment that the doctor had concocted and then, according to demand, mixed with his own hands. 

We are treating of a time, it should be understood, that preceded the introduction of the sugar-coated pill and the immense promulgation of the patent panacea. It was not convenient then to buy remedies ready-made, and in remote districts like ours even the doctor was regarded as a luxury. We took our cathartics neat and were cured by sheer force of the nausea that ensued. Who could forget those dark brown pills that the doctor used to roll by hand, having first kneaded the paste on his slab of walnut, using that flat, flexible blade of steel? They even smelt to heaven. Ugh! And then the salves and ointments that he used to concoct! The jar of lard would come down, and then the sulphur, and the calomel and the zinc. We could have ringworm, and he would cure us. We could have eczema, and he would give relief. We could have the itch, a very common complaint in our day, but not anathema, and he could cure us offhand. And when it came to resetting fractured bones, his touch was as discerning as the X-ray. Shingles he used for splints, cotton batting for pads, and for binding he tore strips from a discarded shirt or the housewife’s apron. Water with a few drops of carbolic acid was the only wash that was used in dressing, and it served its purpose very well, for we found great satisfaction in the sight of a wound festering, because we knew then that it was on the highway towards recovery. Of course, there were some cases where in time mortification set in, but such cases, due to neglect and bad living, were hopeless from the beginning. 

But to begin again, we must go back to the doctor. It must not be supposed that he was one of those young upstarts who called inflammation appendicitis and didn’t know the difference and who wouldn’t give countenance to the good old practice of bleeding. For everybody knew that the tavern-keeper would have been dead long ago if the doctor hadn’t taken half a cup of blood from him every month. And no doubt many will remember George Norris. George endured two strokes of paralysis, and when they used to put him in a rocking chair and carry him out onto the verandah, where he used to sit in the sun, the neighbours would drop in to sympathize with him and to remark how terrible it was that the third stroke always should prove fatal. For George's benefit they would cite cases where the third stroke, following close on the second, had ended in death; and George, as if defending himself in particular and the affliction of paralysis in general, would reply by quoting the doctor’s assertion that it was by no calculation certain that he would die of a third stroke. And the doctor was right. For George, having caught cold while sitting on the verandah, died within the week of inflammation of the lungs. 

Inflammation was as common then as influenza is now. A case of it brought the doctor into close contact with the reeve’s family, with the important result that, having cured the reeve’s wife, he couldn’t cure himself except by marrying the reeve’s only daughter. And then when they tore down the old log tavern he built a frame house on the spot where it had stood. Hard by he built a duplex stable and barn, with enough room for a horse, a cow, a buggy, a cutter, an oat-bin and several tons of hay. The parcel of land upon which these buildings stood was in extent at least one-fifth of an acre, which was well occupied by northern spy apple-trees, a hencoop and a pigsty. His office was in the corner of the house nearest the stable door. It contained a lounge, a counter, several chairs and a box stove, beside which on winter evenings several neighbours used to love to sit and relate encounters they had had with wildcats in Boyle’s bush and black bears in the tamarac swamp. Once in a while the Frenchman, on his way home half drunk from Dublin, would open a tin of oysters, an edible that seemed to be highly relished if mixed with beer and McCormick’s biscuits. 

Just off the office there was a “consulting-room.” It was furnished with a bed, a washstand and a lift-lid desk that always gave out a pungent odour of pears. That is where the doctor slept, even long after his wife, who had borne for him three children, had been carried thence through the front door. And that is where, in case of sickness, anyone hurrying late at night, would find him. All one had to do, having come so far, was to tap on the window. Then the doctor would say, “Yes, yes; I’ll be there,” groan a little, jump up, slip into his trousers, go forward, open the door, ask a few questions, and then come back and finish dressing. 

Dressing in such circumstances, with the prospect of a five-mile drive, was not unpleasant on fine summer nights with the moon high in heaven and clover smelling sweet under the dew. But on cold, stormy winter nights, with the banked fire low in the stove and frost coating the panes! Ugh! I can hear him even now. “Oh, dear, dear me!” he would say. “Who can it be?” And then he would spring out from the warm blankets and shiver into his clothes. “Oh, dear, dear me!” 

“I asked her if she couldn’t thole over till morning,” the man at the door would say, by way of apology, and then he would remark that there were bad drifts on the mountain and that it was necessary to take to the fields just this side of Hogarth’s bridge. And with that he would hurry away, for his sick wife would be tholing it all alone until his return. 

And then the doctor, with his lantern lit, would sally forth into the storm. The old horse, hearing him, would whicker, knowing well what it meant. But a gust of wind rushing through between house and stable would blow the light out. Then the doctor would reenter the office and relight it. Again it would be blown out. Again he would relight it. And again it would be blown out. Then we would hear a bang, with the noise of broken glass, and in the morning we would find the lantern, flattened and useless, lying beside the stable door. 

No, it was not too bad on fine summer nights, with frogs singing in all low places and fireflys lighting the gloom. But when the doctor had to wade knee deep through spring freshets, weighting the cutter down with fence rails, when the horse would stand and shiver and refuse to go on because the culvert in front of him had been washed away, when the temperature would be twenty below zero, and a blizzard blowing, when rain and sleet cut into the face on late fall nights, when diphtheria would attack one household and scarlet fever another, when Barbara Brown would have inflammation, and Mrs. Burton pleurisy, when Jim Feeney would go out of his head and cut his throat, when a limb would fall on Billy Johnson and fracture his skull, when the mowing machine would run over little Johnnie Jones, when the new tavernkeeper would break out in delirium tremens, when big Angus would be raging with liquor and about to throw the sewing-machine through the window, when Ferguson’s baby would swallow a button, when Jimmy Norris would drop dead in the field—when these things happened the doctor’s job was by no reckoning all beer and skittles. And he had as well to be peacemaker where there was domestic infelicity and general arbiter in petty disputes that were too far removed from any court of law. At fairs and debates he was a judge and at public meetings the chairman. 

But for all these services the doctor got his reward. For pulling a tooth he would charge twenty-five cents. For an ordinary consultation, with a bottle of medicine or a box of pills, he would mark down one dollar. For a case of confinement, with all attendance, his fee was five dollars if he thought he couldn’t get ten. Many, many times he forgot to make any charge at all. Very often his reward came in everyday commodities of exchange. From the storekeeper he got groceries and many of the odds and ends that ordinarily are required in simple households. Then, too, from others he got turkeys for Christmas, geese for New Year’s Day, eggs and butter galore, milk when his cow ran dry, and wood in great piles that almost filled his yard. He got maple syrup and potatoes, turnips and mangold wurtzels, cheese and cider, chicken feed, chop stuff and flour, horseshoes and buggy tires, dressed hogs and quarters of beef. In barns of the countryside he had enough hay and oats to supply a regiment of cavalry.

All these things came to him whether he needed them or not. But he got insignificantly little else. For it was a time when everybody seemed to be long of commodities and short of actual cash. If the cobbler mended our shoes he required in exchange a gargle or a liniment. If the farrier gave old Jack a dose for the botts, a fair exchange was a box of pills for the mother-in-law. It always was supposed that at the end of the year there would be a reckoning. But in most instances it was the reckoning that availeth nothing. For how, as old Charlie used to express it, can you take blood out of a stone? If the doctor owed the blacksmith thirty dollars and the blacksmith owed the doctor only twenty, how could the accounts be balanced if the doctor had nothing but pills, drugs and professional skill? Likewise if the minister owed the doctor forty dollars and had spent all his stipend, how could he pay the debt if he had nothing to offer but stale sermons and the authority to officiate at weddings and funerals? There, then, was a ludicrous progress of affairs. But we all seemed to live, somehow or other, and a few of us, notwithstanding the doctor’s skill, seemed to die. For dying, to pronounce a platitude, is the common and the crowning achievement of mankind. It therefor should not astonish or distress anyone if we conclude this chronicle by recording the death of the doctor. Yes, without asking leave or giving notice, the very man who for almost half a century had been trying to keep the grim reaper away from others, at last, himself, maybe in an unguarded moment, felt the keen edge of the blade. It was during the epidemic of the flu, after he had fought the scourge, perhaps only half-armed, day after day, night after night, like many another doctor, with the shrouds full. Upon his tombstone we should engrave these words:

“He saved others; himself he did not save.”  

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