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A commitment to the north


Bert Riggs,

(an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University),
whose column, A Backward Glance
appears in the Telegram each Tuesday

Transcribed From the Telegram

By: Barbara McGrath



When one thinks of the Grenfell mission, the name of Sir Wilfred Grenfell comes immediately to mind. After all, he was the founder of the mission and the prime mover behind the building of hospitals and nursing stations and the establishment of industrial centres in northern Newfoundland and coastal Labrador communities.

Grenfell was not alone in his mission work. Many doctors, nurses and other workers provided years of service to the mission. One of the longest serving was Dr. Charles Samuel Curtis.

Curtis was born in Worcester, Mass., on April 18, 1887, the son of Albert Curtis and Mary Morse. His preliminary education took place in Worcester, where, in 1909, he graduated from Clark University.

Then it was on to Harvard University, at nearby Cambridge, from which he graduated in 1913 with a doctorate in medicine.

After completing internships at Boston's City Hospital and Lying-In Hospital, and teaching obstetrics for a year at Yale University's medical school, Curtis travelled to Newfoundland.

Inspired by lecture

He had heard Grenfell lecture to one of his classes while at Harvard, and like many other young New England doctors, he spent time working with the Grenfell Mission after graduation. He then decided to spend the summer of 1915 assisting Dr. John Mason Little, the mission's chief surgeon at St. Anthony.

Grenfell must have realized there was something special about Curtis. He asked him to stay the winter with the mission.

Curtis agreed and that decision marked the beginning of a lifelong commitment to the people of northern Newfoundland and Labrador. In 1917, Curtis, only four years after completing medical school, became chief medical officer at the St. Anthony hospital.

With Curtis in charge at St. Anthony, Grenfell was able to concentrate his time working in the coastal communities of Labrador.

Curtis set about making the hospital at St. Anthony into an efficient, modern hospital, soon recognized by locals and visitors alike as one of the best-equipped and staffed mission hospitals anywhere in the world.

Under his leadership, the St. Anthony hospital became the first in Newfoundland to receive an A-1 rating from the American College of Surgeons and was the first hospital in Newfoundland to use radium in cancer treatment.

A specialist in obstetrics and gynecology and a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, Curtis did much to better the health and the lives of the people under his care.

He was equally at home operating at the hospital or on a kitchen table, after having travelled miles overland in the dead of winter to reach his patient.

He was an avid promoter of good nutrition as the road to good health. He was particularly proud of the Mission Barn and its herd of 20-plus Holstein cattle, which supplied milk, cream and cheese for hospital patients and staff and for the residents of the nearby orphanage.

Curtis dedicated his life to the work of the Grenfell Mission. In 1934, he succeeded Grenfell as superintendent of the International Grenfell Association (IGA) which operated the mission.

This put him in charge of all facets of the mission's work: medical, social welfare, craft development, education and administration.

He was determined to maintain the high standards that Grenfell had insisted on. It was his tenacity and obstinance that refused to give in to the Commission of Government's strong suggestions that the mission be closed for several winters during the Second World War.

International recognition

Curtis received international recognition for his service to the mission and to Newfoundland. He was granted an honorary doctorate of science degree by his alma mater, Clark University.

In 1946, King George VI of Great Britain created him a commander of the Order of the British Empire. Three years later, he was raised to the rank of officer. Curtis refused to take the time to travel to London to receive the award, preferring, instead, to have it presented by a local magistrate in a St. Anthony schoolhouse.

Curtis married Harriot Houghteling of Winnetka, Ill. in 1929. She was a childhood friend of Anne MacClanahan, Grenfell's wife, and had come to St. Anthony at MacClanahan's behest.

In 1923, she became director of staff selection for the mission. She later became the chairwoman of the local school board and devoted many years and much money to educating the children of St. Anthony and the surrounding area. She died at Boston on Sept. 6, 1951.

Two years after his wife's death, Curtis relinquished the superintendency, but agreed to become chairman of the board of the IGA, a position he held until his death.

After 1950, he spent his summers at St. Anthony and his winters in the U.S. He finally gave up his practice in 1959, after 44 years of service. He died at Boston on March 13, 1964.

Both Curtis and his wife, like Grenfell and several others who had been involved with the mission, had their ashes interred at Fox Farm Hill, overlooking St. Anthony.

The esteem in which they were held by the people of St. Anthony is evident in Harriot Curtis Collegiate and the Dr. Charles S. Curtis Memorial Hospital, two institutions that carry on the tradition of excellence and service to which they had dedicated their lives.

Bert Riggs is an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University. ...



This page transcribed by Barbara McGrath (September 2000)
REVISED: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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