Life and Medical Work on the Labrador
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 28 Apr 1938, p. 376-391
Forsyth, Dr. C. Hogarth, Speaker
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Item Type
Dr. Forsyth begins with the story of the rescue of a trapper who set off to do his work, only to become very ill with tuberculosis of the spine and have to be carried out of the wilderness by two other trappers who had come along. The story is told to illustrate something of the caliber of the Labrador people and something of the degree to which they rely on the service that Sir Wilfred Grenfell has built up among them. A description of the Newfoundland Labrador on the Atlantic seaboard of Northern Quebec. The circumstances under which Sir Wilfred Grenfell came to Labrador. Details of Sir Grenfell's work. Hospitals and nursing stations set up to provide some medical services to the people of Labrador. Difficulties of providing medical services in this area. The speaker tells many anecdotes that illustrate the life and culture of the people, also of their interaction with the culture brought to them by Sir Grenfell. Several medical stories are also told. Carrying on Sir Grenfell's work.
Date of Original
28 Apr 1938
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Thursday, April 28th, 1938

PRESIDENT HARCOURT: Mr. Pratt, Past Presidents and Gentlemen: We have been thrilled in the past by Dr. Grenfell's characteristic sincerity and modesty as he unfolded the story of the beginning and the development of the work of his mission up and down the Labrador in an effort to bring help and relief, temporal, physical and spiritual to the sparsely settled district of that wild, bleak and forbidding shore. As the work grew and developed we were amazed at the manifold problems which the mission was called upon to solve. For some years now our guest-speaker, Dr. Forsyth, has borne a large part of the responsibility and has relieved Sir Wilfred of many of his arduous tasks. Of recent years much of the administration has been in the able and devoted hands of Dr. Forsyth. When your President endeavoured to acquire a more personal and close-up view of Dr. Forsyth, he was told, "Wait until you meet the man." Without further words from me, I now introduce Members of The Empire Club of Canada to a knight of what might be called modern chivalry. His motto can be truly said to be, "Service, not Self." Dr. Forsyth. (Applause.)

DR. C. HOGARTH FORSYTH: Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: Last year a patient came to my hands from the northern part of Labrador. He was a young man who in the autumn of the year went trapping. The previous year he had got his things ready at the end of September to go into that wilderness of a country, a distance of 150 miles or more to go to his traps. A week before he left he had felt a nagging pain in the lower part of his back. He attributed it to rheumatism and didn't allow it to trouble him unduly. He collected his things and set off into the country, part of the way by canoe, but the last twenty miles had to be portaged. By late fall he came to that part of the country he intended to trap. He worked along his trap lines for the next two or three weeks and he found that his back was getting steadily worse and worse. Finally he had to give up his work and he decided to try and get back to his settlement which was the nearest piece of civilization. He set out but he didn't get very far. He struggled on for a day or two before he realized that he could never make it.

He had to do something. He knew that other trappers would shortly be coming out of the country and he knew the path by which they came. "Path" was the word he used but it seems a poor word to indicate something trodden by two people, perhaps twice a year and it was only a trapper's instinct that took him to one of the so-called paths. He found it and there he pitched his tent and managed to cut a little wood to keep him going, because the freeze-up had come by that time. He waited for help to come. Sure enough within two days two trappers came, hauling a toboggan, piled up with furs, their stoves and provisions. When they saw the plight their fellow was in they wasted no time discussing alternative methods of procedure. They dumped their furs there and cached them, although they knew they would have to give up a month or so later to come in and bring them out, and the much-needed money they get from the sale of their furs had to be postponed. They put the sick man on their toboggan and started to haul him out. I can leave you to imagine what the man suffered during the next few days, bumping over a rocky road on a little flat toboggan, on a path covered with the first layer of snow. After a time he said, "Put me off and leave me here to die." He couldn't stand it any longer. They pitched a tent, cut enough wood to last a few days and they, themselves, hastened out to the settlement. That night they had to sleep without a tent and had a blizzard come on they would probably have lost their lives. They got to the settlement and told their story. A dog team was immediately sent to the nursing station, 30 miles away, to get the nurse and another team left early next morning to go and bring the man out. He was found and brought out to the settlement, by which time the nurse who had to battle against a blizzard the whole thirty miles to the settlement, was there waiting. She saw that he was indeed a very sick man and as soon as she could she took him to her station. He was subsequently transferred to the hospital where he was X-rayed and found to have tuberculosis of the spine. He was in the hospital for nearly a year and he greatly improved. I have heard that he has been back on the trap lines this winter, working as well as ever he did before.

This story illustrates something of the caliber of the Labrador people themselves and something of the degree to which they rely on the service that Sir Wilfred Grenfell has built up among them.

The Newfoundland Labrador is the Atlantic seaboard of Northern Quebec. It is the seaboard of that big tract of unexplored, unexploited and uninhabited land, half a million square miles in area, lying between Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait, and the Atlantic Ocean, a land probably more behind in exploitation than any other part of the Dominion. Only a slice belongs to Newfoundland. The rest lies within .the Province of Quebec. The interior is uninhabited except for a few wandering bands of Indians. The coast line was originally populated by the Esquimaux, but 150 years ago settlers came from England, attracted by the furs and fish and settled upon the southern part of the coast. They intermarried with the Esquimaux and the rest of the Esquimaux within a very short time disappeared from that part of the coast and took up quarters in the northern part. For centuries before this the Labrador coast itself had been a rendezvous for fishing vessels from Newfoundland and in the old days they came from Europe to fish in those waters, so prolific in the summer time.

The Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen in England apparently heard something of the fishing fleets on the Labrador coast. They became interested some 45 years ago and asked one of their staff, a young doctor, named Wilfred Grenfell, if he would sail across in the spring of the year and advise on conditions there. He fitted out a 75-ton ketch and himself skippered it across the Atlantic with a picked crew. He describes his arrival upon the coast one fine morning in June in the year 1892. Just after dawn he came on deck to find the sunlight glinting off the peaks of innumerable icebergs and far ahead rising out of the sea an archipelago of barren rocky islands stretching on either side as far as eye could see. As he approached he could see the hills of the mainland rising and receding in the distance.

Wilfred Grenfell's little vessel sailed along and dropped anchor among a big fleet of schooners lying at anchor there and was the cause of instant stir and interest. They immediately put their dories over the side and the excited fishermen came rowing across to find where this strange vessel came from. When they found that a doctor was on board they lost no time in giving him work to do for it was the first time a doctor had been seen on the Labrador coast.

With that beginning he sailed up and down the Labrador coast that summer, visiting various fleets and in the autumn he returned to England to report. The result was that within a year two small summer hospitals were built on outlying islands, two hundred miles apart. This service was mainly to the fleets of schooners that came north in the summer time. They are a viking race of men, who individually strip the forests to build great schooners in the winter months and then sail them to the Labrador a-fishing. They build schooners up to 140 and 150 tons in size. The whole thing is usually a family affair. One family builds a schooner and sails to the Labrador waters. Among this fraternity lay Grenfell's first work, and for them the first hospitals were built.

Very soon he found that he was only touching the fringes of a much greater problem. He made the acquaintance of the Labrador folk themselves over the whole Goo miles of the Labrador coast, and he visited the people on both sides of that long peninsula which points northward out of Newfoundland like a great index finger. He found a scattered people living along over a thousand miles of iron bound coast, a people without education, without schools, without medical services, doctors or nurses, and who lived by a peculiar feudal system that must have been a survival from medieval times. They never touched money from year's end to year's end. They fished and trapped and gave the products of their catches to merchants from the St. Lawrence for a little food and clothing. Just enough to keep them going, not much more.

To Grenfell they were a challenge to take up and to set to work to build up an organization to give these people what they needed, and year by year a hospital would be built here, and a nursing station there, and later there came boarding schools. Besides that there has been a sort of social service scheme in the form of, for one thing, clothing. These people had to pay a tremendous price for clothing because there is an import duty on all clothing to Newfoundland of about fifty per cent. By the time it was freighted to the northern part the price soared further still. Most of the people were only half clad, as most of them are only half fed.

Then, too, they were encouraged in handicrafts and by the handicrafts they could help pay for some of the clothing sent to the coast. It was early realized that it is a fatal thing to give anything to people of that primitive type. They must be encouraged to pay in some form or other for everything. They were encouraged to pay for medical service, for clothing, in fish and fire-wood that we needed from them. It was a sort of co-operative principle between us and them.

For example, two summers ago I was trying to build up a dog team at my station at St. Mary's River. I wanted to get as pure huskies as I could, which were only to be found on the northern part of the Labrador coast. Two small girls came to the hospital to have their tonsils out and I discovered that their father had one of the best teams away to the north. That was my chance and when they went home they took a little letter back to their father, telling him that I had taken the two children's tonsils out and asking if he thought four tonsils were worth a couple of pups. Apparently he must have considered each tonsil worth a pup. He obviously hadn't four pups so he sent two full grown dogs which at the present day are the best dogs in my team. In that way we get co-operation, we get something from them for most everything.

In the north of Newfoundland in that long finger I mentioned before, the population is the most dense of all the district we serve. There in 1927 the culmination of Sir Wilfred Grenfell's work found fruit in the building of a large hospital of about eighty beds, a fine concrete building erected at Saint Anthony at the northern tip of Newfoundland. Some thought it was over elaborate and over big for the work it had to do. This has been amply disproved because last summer the hospital had 110 or 120 patients when the coastal steamer arrived. The coastal steamer is our ambulance, there are no roads and transport is solely by the sea. The steamer arrives and patient after patient is unloaded on the wharf, some on stretchers, some able to walk, some on crutches. A total of 72 patients was brought ashore from that ship and they had to find room for them in the already overcrowded hospital. The steamer itself would not be returning for another two weeks. The sick ones were placed in hospital and the rest were placed around, some on mattresses in other buildings, some were boarded out in the town and so on. They managed it. In the summer months that hospital was about as full as it well could be.

Upon the Labrador coast we face a different problem. There is a long coast line, Goo miles on the Newfoundland side and 600 miles on the Canadian side. That is looked after by three doctors and three nurses in stations separate from the hospitals. There is a hospital, then 150 miles of coast, then a nursing station and another 150 miles to the hospital and so on. On the Newfoundland side there are two doctors, one beside myself. The older doctor has been there 25 years. He knows the coast like a book and it is a complicated coast too. There are a thousand rocky islands and tens of thousands of rivers. He sails the coast every summer in hospital ships bringing patients to the hospitals and he visits the fleet as Sir Wilfred did in passing by. I remain back in the local hospital and take all the patients he may bring in and deal with the local patients for 150 miles each way. The summer is a busy time. All the fishers from Newfoundland are upon the Labrador coast.

Besides the hospital, the station which is the same as most of the others on the Labrador coast, has a small farm, cows, poultry and gardens, it has a store, and it also has a boarding school. All the Labrador stations have these boarding schools. There are three of them and they serve a very definite purpose. The people of Labrador dwelling in the larger settlements are a splendid, resourceful, pioneering type of people who make the most of all the resources in hand. In between the settlements there are long stretches of 150 miles of coast where one finds conditions that are unbelievably primitive. There, families have dwelt in complete isolation, one, two or three families together, for more than a hundred years and the result has been a steadily increasing form of mental and moral degeneration with each successive generation, a form of degeneration in which no improvement can be found by going after the actual adults. I think that was tried for a time and it is only in the last ten or fifteen years that schools have been opened and they have discovered the real way to tackle the problem. These people live in tiny one-room shacks, about ten by twelve feet, and which in winter you can often see the daylight through the walls. It would be only half an hour's work to stuff up .the walls and keep warm inside, but so far have the people gone from the usual human standards that they don't seem to worry.

I saw a remarkable house once. From the outside it looked as though it had partially fallen over one way but it hadn't completely collapsed. When I went inside I was surprised to find quite a different state of affairs. The obvious deduction was that when the man was building this ten by twelve foot shack, he got the four corner posts up and boarded up one side when a wind storm came and thrust it off the vertical a matter of about twenty or thirty degrees. Any sane person at that point would have taken out his corner post and rebuilt. Not this man. He went on and finished the outside. When it came to doing the inside he put shelves parallel with the ground and when you went into the house it was rather like entering a witch's cabin in one of Grimm's fairy tales. There was everything at a different angle to everything else on the inside. It was the craziest dwelling I ever saw.

That the people have definite possibilities is shown by a remarkable thing that happened last winter. There was a very severe dog sickness upon the coast and from December until May these people have relied entirely upon dog teams for getting around. There are no roads, navigation is closed. They have to go sometimes eighty miles for supplies, to hospital and so on. When the dog sickness struck them they were in a very awkward position. I saw people haul heavy dog sleds, sometimes a man and his wife leaving the children at home would go seventy and eighty miles to get provisions and haul them back again A most gruelling task. One man, presumably a little cleverer than the rest had an ingenious idea. I first heard of it on the coast eighty miles away and soon found that it was the talk of the coast. He had decided that the best way to get around would be to have a form of handoperated snowmobile. The man had never learned to read or write, nor had he seen any magazines or pictures. However, he had seen an aeroplane and he knew how to handle a motor boat engine and he knew what a propeller looked like. He put one and one together. He built up a wooden framework on his dog sled and on this he mounted a propeller, two and a half feet long, a very fair imitation of an aeroplane propeller. He first had a handle working the propeller but he found he couldn't get much speed turning that around. The deductive principle got to work and he built up a system of cog wheels. He had to carve cog wheels out of the only thing on hand, spruce wood. He had the system of cog wheels and the wooden handle made out of spruce and wooden axles and wooden bearings. When he would turn his handle his propeller would go around about six times as fast as the handle did. With that he thought he was going to get along pretty good. Long before he got the snow boat on the harbour the story was around that he was cruising along at thirty miles an hour. I found it hard to believe. When I came along I went to see it and found that he hadn't got very far. When he started to turn the handle the soft wooden cogs slipped out. He was trying to get a set of iron cogs and by turning the handle around he was going to go down the coast at a tremendous speed, far in excess of what dog teams can do.

In a way it is the children we are trying to get hold of. We get them out of the homes as young as we can, at five or six years old, and we take them to the boarding schools and keep them there until they are about fifteen. They are fed well and clothed well and they are taught useful things. The boys are taught the fishing craft, carpentering, farming. The girls are taught home crafts and household ideas, besides learning the three R's. At the end of ten years of a life like that they will be suitably prepared for better things back in the little settlement and they are not content to slip back to the shiftlessness of the existence of their fathers. They want something better and they set out to get it and they do, because it is open to any man to work and make the kind of living he likes according to how he works.

One small boy, aged eleven, last year built a small rowing boat, and a very good one too. It was a ten-foot boat and he rowed it around the harbour. Later he thought a row boat was not quite the thing. He was possibly a few months older and thought he ought to have a motor boat. Where was he to get an engine. That was the problem. He fitted a complete engine house to the boat. I came along one day, and I saw the boat, it was a perfect imitation of one of the fishermen's motor boats. I thought to myself, "This young fellow won't have an engine house on the back of the boat unless he has an engine in it." I knew him well enough for that. I looked inside and hanging from the roof by a piece of string was the works out of an old alarm clock. I suppose with that he was satisfied.

Last spring, my wife, having a 60-foot trout net that she had used in a nursing station to get her dogs food with, but not having time to work it, asked this boy if he would fish it for her and work on a hare plan, she to supply the net and he to fish it, and halve the proceeds. He was all for it. The small lad took the great net and he would go out and haul it twice a day and bring the trout to the hospital. He would say, "Here, Mrs. Forsyth is your half, and here is my half. I want you to buy it from me." That was something she hadn't calculated on. However, the patients benefitted in the hospital and they had plenty of trout to eat.

All through the summer months the coast is cruised in hospital ships and we work in the hospitals. When the autumn and winter come around we all go back to Newfoundland, and there is a smaller population. We travel the coast by dog team, starting early in December, the doctor covering about 300 miles of coast line and the nurses doing the same. The nurses in the nursing stations have to be very reliable people and very independent. Theirs is very frequently a pretty tough proposition.

Two years ago a nurse was called to a place fifteen miles away, a man was said to have injured himself. She arrived and found him in his house literally swimming in a pool of blood. He had been out in the woods, his axe had slipped and he had driven it into his thigh and severed one of the main blood vessels. The nurse knew she must act; no time to send for the doctor who was a day or two's journey away. She unpacked her bag, rapidly laid out her few simple nursing instruments, ligated the blood vessel and stitched up the wound. She gave the man restoratives and stood by the rest of the day until the shock had passed off and she thought it was safe to leave him. Then she went back to her nursing station.

Then another time she may find a man with acute appendicitis. She can't deal with that. She has to get the man to hospital. I have known them travelling by dog team all day, looking after the patient all night on the road three days at a time and getting their patient to the hospital, staying there one night in hospital, being relieved of responsibility of looking after the patient, having a night's good sleep and back on the road, back to their lonely nursing station to look after their people once again. They do big cruises in the winter time and visit from house to house as do the doctors. The doctors cover the whole coast, each man to his own district. In the autumn of the year things are often very difficult, getting to stations or to hospitals.

There was a time three years ago when I was walking back from seeing a case with a small bag strapped on my back with my medical things. I was putting into a settlement for the night and I came to a small house where a boy had acute appendicitis. He had had it for four days. They had tried to contact me and hadn't succeeded. Naturally, I hadn't the equipment to operate here. I had been off seeing a medical case and it became imperative to get the boy to the hospital. I went to the father and I told him that the boy's only hope was to get him to hospital. He made a wry face and went out to discuss it with the other men. They said if the only chance of saving the boy's life was to get him to the hospital that they would get him there. That was late at night. The next morning I saw the problem we were up against. The settlement was at the bottom of a mile long arm of the sea. The arm was frozen over with young ice which would not bear, but through which no boat could proceed. The shores were lines by dense woods right down to the water's edge. They made a box, put mattress and bedding in it, put the boy in it, and with long poles lashed on each side four men took hold of the box to carry it. All the rest of the men, sixteen of them, went ahead with their axes and cleared a little narrow path. They cut the trees out of the way until they had a path where there was enough room to get the ambulance through the woods to the edge of the ice. Luckily at this point they had a motor boat hauled up and they were able to put off in the water. They got the boy around to the boat and put him in. By that time there was a lot of soft ice, slob ice that had drifted in and pinned the boat to the shore. Still they were not beaten. They got a long rope on the boat and all sixteen men hauled on it and gradually they pulled the boat clear of the slob ice and were able to get down to the settlement where the hospital was and the boy was taken in and operated on.

In the winter time, as I said, from December we have to do all our travelling by dog team. A year ago I had the job of breaking in a dog team. I think this is one of the most maddening tasks that can befall anyone. Our dogs are all Esquimaux or three-quarters Esquimaux. They are driven in Esquimaux fashion, in teams of from six to twelve dogs, which means that each dog is on a separate trace and it certainly gives them lots of freedom, but makes a great deal safer driving. I set to work, helped by my wife, to break in all the dogs we had. We took one dog at a time and would get him used to the idea of hauling a sled and keeping more or less on a trail. Then we would put a second in behind and then a third and so on. Then by the time we had worked up to six or seven--these are still in a rather early stage--we usually start on a trial run on the harbour ice. We get all the dogs harnessed up and call for them to go. In the ordinary way they should leap forward and tear off down the trail. That is what a good team does. This team of beginners is quite different. The first one ambles ahead all right. The second one probably lies down. The third turns around and runs back toward home. The fourth one lies down. The last one runs to the end of his trace, then turns around and pulls; harness and all comes off over his head and away he scoots, clear away. There is only one way to cure a dog of this kind as I found after different experiences. One takes a piece of twine and ties it to his tail and then to the back of his harness. The next time he starts to skip his harness he starts slipping his tail too. They very soon learn because it is an uncomfortable sensation, apparently. By January I had the team broken in and able to work all winter.

One winter when I was on a routine trip along the coast the other doctor was out and I was covering his district. I was visiting and I came to a small house, a little twelve foot shack, about ninety miles from any hospital. When I was once inside I found a girl lying on a mattress, on a floor with a bandage around her head. On enquiry I found her people old and sickly and practically out of food in the house. This girl was the only really satisfactory member of the family who could do anything. She had been out tending to her rabbit traps. She had slung on her shoulder a loaded rifle on the chance of shooting a partridge, and bending over a trap the rifle had discharged and the bullet had gone through her head. Her people went out and found her and carried her in and put her on the floor and had left her there to die. And they were a little astonished that the doctor they thought was Zoo miles away happened in the next day and with him the Minister of the district. He was coming along, acting as my pilot. I was travelling over new ground. We had two other men--we usually travel in pairs. We set the men to work to make a long, low box in which to put the patient. The parson gave the girl an anaesthetic and I cleaned up her head as best I could and we set out for hospital. As soon as we had started we realized that every time we went over a bump the girl suffered intensely and shrieked with pain. After some experimentation we solved the problem. We found that human hands make a good shock absorber and so one of the men had to sit behind her and cup his hands and lift her head clear of the pillow. As happens frequently, we ran into bad weather that delayed us. It was not until nine at night on the third day that we arrived at North West River, after having walked since early morning on snow-shoes ahead of the dogs to break trail in the deep snow. We arrived at the hospital and it was a very poor outlook, I think you will agree, for a girl of eighteen, half starved, and with a septic wound in the head and three days of hard bumping travel. I could only stay five days. I had to get back to my own hospital Zoo miles away, as it was near the spring breakup. I didn't think there was very much hope, though in time I heard she had pulled around and had been given a job in the hospital and was doing good work.

The Labrador people are a very strong race and they seem able to pull through anything. In fact I have never yet given up hope of saving anybody. I have seen people inconceivably near death and yet pull around all right in a way the people never would outside.

This is a glimpse of the work in one Labrador station. The same work is done in all other stations and at the big one at Saint Anthony, where one might say it is being done fourfold, and the whole thing is the result of the work of one man. Sir Wilfred Grenfell, himself, is literally responsible for the whole organization starting from those two small hospitals. He has gradually built it up and during these last 45 years he has given himself unsparingly for these people all the time; the first twenty years mostly out on the coast and in the second twenty years doing that which he, himself, most disliked, going around on deputation work. His organization work is now finished. At the same time, at the end of 45 years of toil his health has given out and he has been forced, most unwillingly, to retire from the field. We, who are carrying on are not faced with the problems of building up anything more but we are faced with the exceedingly difficult problem of carrying on that which he has started, but as long as those people up there do need our services we hope we will be able to carry on this work, to take it a stage nearer the ultimate fulfillment in the days to come when Labrador will be a prosperous, independent and developed country, able to stand on its own legs. (Applause.)

PRESIDENT: Dr. Forsyth, we are indeed glad to have met the man and it is the sincere wish of the members of The Empire Club, I know, that you may long be spared to give your talents to that great work commenced by Sir Wilfred Grenfel and continued under your able leadership.

I express our grateful thanks to you, Dr. Forsyth, for your interesting address today.

Now, Mr. Pratt, to you and to your Executive and the members of The Empire Club of Canada, my very best wishes. May we all do our part for Canada and a united Empire. Mr. Fetherstonhaugh would like to say a few words.

MR. FETHERSTONHAUGH: I would like to say a word or two. Having known the Empire Club and having been interested in it since its inception, I may say I want to pay a tribute to Mr. Brace who succeeded in having Mr. Powell work with this Club in a manner that no other man I can remember in the past has worked with the energy and the really splendid hard work he did to bring the Club into its present position. I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Powell, and I want to couple with it the Past President, Mr. Brace, and I would like you to rise and give an expression of your appreciation. We cannot be too grateful to such men as these who make such things possible and the success of this Club so great.

PRESIDENT: I know both Mr. Powell and Mr. Brace would like to address you now. I am not going to let them. The meeting is adjourned.

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Life and Medical Work on the Labrador

Dr. Forsyth begins with the story of the rescue of a trapper who set off to do his work, only to become very ill with tuberculosis of the spine and have to be carried out of the wilderness by two other trappers who had come along. The story is told to illustrate something of the caliber of the Labrador people and something of the degree to which they rely on the service that Sir Wilfred Grenfell has built up among them. A description of the Newfoundland Labrador on the Atlantic seaboard of Northern Quebec. The circumstances under which Sir Wilfred Grenfell came to Labrador. Details of Sir Grenfell's work. Hospitals and nursing stations set up to provide some medical services to the people of Labrador. Difficulties of providing medical services in this area. The speaker tells many anecdotes that illustrate the life and culture of the people, also of their interaction with the culture brought to them by Sir Grenfell. Several medical stories are also told. Carrying on Sir Grenfell's work.