Those Summers Down North
In 1907, a charismatic missionary doctor began luring Hopkins medical
students to Newfoundland for a clinical experience like no other. One
returned for a lifetime.
On a September morning in 1932, John Olds, a 26-year-old graduate of Yale and the School of Medicine, boarded a boat in New York City that was headed north up the Atlantic coast to the British colony of Newfoundland. With him was the woman he'd married that day, Elizabeth (Arms), a 1930 graduate of the Johns Hopkins School for Nurses. They were returning to Twillingate, a remote island on Newfoundland's northeastern coast.
The Olds would spend the rest of their lives in that snow-ridden land, where he would act as director of the rustic Notre Dame Memorial Hospital on the south side of Twillingate harbor. John Olds would treat Indians, Eskimos and local fishermen and travel by dog sled to visit patients in their homes. On his own, he would run the hospital's emergency room and perform complex surgery, and by the time he died, he would have become a local legend.
But why? Why would a blue-blood New Englander, born and raised in Windsor, Conn., educated at the tony Loomis Institute prep school, and groomed from the start for an upper-crust career, choose instead to use his Johns Hopkins medical degree and his training under the world-famous neurosurgeon Walter Dandy on a bleak northern island? The answer is as much a part of the lore of the School of Medicine as it is about Johns Olds' own particular temperament. For by the time Olds first set foot in Newfoundland in 1930, working on those outermost islands already had become a 25-year tradition among medical and nursing students on the East Baltimore campus.
When John Olds first signed on to go to Newfoundland as a medical student in the summer of 1930, he may not even have known that Johns Hopkins' tie to the godforsaken part of the world that would shape his life had been spawned by one charismatic British missionary doctor named Wilfred Grenfell. Had it not been for Grenfell, Olds no doubt would have become the pathologist his father had planned for him to be, joined the country club and lived out his years in comfort.
As it was, 20 years before John Olds entered Hopkins, on the night of Feb. 11, 1907, Grenfell had taken the podium at Baltimore's Peabody recital hall and dazzled the audience with descriptions of the medical service he'd built along the northern coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland. (He'd been invited to lecture by Adelaide Nutting, The Johns Hopkins Hospital's Canadian superintendent of nursing.) Grenfell portrayed a local population that was friendly and remarkably hospitable, but also desperately poor. They lived in squalid, unsanitary conditions, tuberculosis was rampant, as were diseases related to malnutrition, like beriberi.
At that point, it had been 14 years since Grenfell left England to live in this remote part of the British Empire. In that time he'd put together a remarkable network called the Grenfell Mission where islanders came when they were sick. He'd built three small hospitals, the main one in St. Anthony, a remote outpost on the northeast tip of the island along Newfoundland's northern coast, and he'd enlisted three hospital boats that plied the coast, delivering "over-the-side" care. All summer long, the hospital boats would arrive with patients. Grenfell, a bold and deft surgeon, would sometimes oversee seven operations a day.
As Grenfell spoke that night in 1907, sitting in the audience was Hopkins' powerful chief neurosurgeon, Harvey Cushing. Cushing came away overwhelmed. Grenfell, in fact, became his lifelong friend. Immediately, he invited the British doctor to address medical and nursing students the following day in the Physiology Building on the East Baltimore campus. And it was that appearance that forged the Hopkins-Newfoundland tie that would change John Olds' life. Grenfell drew instant results: Two Hopkins nurses and a medical student signed on to work at the Grenfell Mission that spring of 1907. The pipeline between Baltimore and Newfoundland kept right on flowing up until World War II.
Every year, a handful of medical and nursing students would spend the summer before their final year at the School of Medicine going "Down North," as the Newfoundland experience was called. They were lured by the wild beauty of the place and a promise of independence and hands-on clinical experience the likes of which they had never known. Part of a larger group of American, Canadian and English volunteers, they also were attracted by the notion of public service in a remote area. They came from a dozen or so different American colleges and universities, but few institutions were as well-represented-especially when it came to medical care-as Johns Hopkins.
Almost all the Hopkins medical students in the early years worked at the St. Anthony Hospital. They would leave New York for Newfoundland at the end of May and change boats in St. Johns. Then, they would board a mail steamer and sail northward through magnificent harbors with names like Harbor Deep, Twillingate and Seldom-Come-By that were almost totally land-locked and surrounded by steep hills that plunged into the water. The boat would make 35 stops in all. Steaming into a harbor, the captain would blow his whistle, and villagers, anxious for mail, news and provisions, would row or scull out in their small boats. Homemade stretchers would be carried to the side of the boat and one sick person after another, bound like the students themselves for St. Anthony Hospital, would be helped on board.
Twenty-five years before John Olds first went up to Newfoundland, one of the first to make the trip was a young Hopkins nurse named Vashti Bartlett. She spent four months there in 1908 at St. Anthony, and she is notable because of the journal and photographs she brought back with her. They are preserved today in the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives and form a written and pictorial record of Johns Hopkins' early tie with a part of the world that most of us still know little about.
Many nursing and medical students discovered the Down North experience left a lasting impression. One, Charles Parsons, graduated from the School of Medicine in 1919, and at Grenfell's request returned to build a new hospital on Twillingate in Notre Dame Bay. The next year, Parsons became director of Notre Dame Memorial and immediately began recruiting students from his alma mater. After that, Hopkins' base in Newfoundland became Twillingate.
And so we return to John Olds. Olds became one of Parsons' recruits in 1930, the summer before he entered his last year of medical school. He turned down the chance for a summer job at Duke University Hospital in favor of a practicum in Twillingate. He even got Hopkins to agree to let him skip the first quarter of his senior year on campus, so he'd have a full six months in the north. Olds' patrician father, aghast at his decision, wrote him a diatribe on family honor and the duty not to squander God-given gifts. Olds, however, was adamant. "The idea of settling down in a so-called civilized city is very abhorrent," he wrote back. "By the time I finish here I intend to have no restrictions which will keep me from going anywhere I want."
Olds had not counted on falling in love with Newfoundland. Twillingate got in his blood. He finished medical school and a year's surgical internship at Hopkins and then accepted a residency at Notre Dame Memorial, rejecting what he knew was a far better offer from Hopkins' surgery chief, Dean Lewis.
When Olds and his bride embarked for Twillingate in 1932, they intended to stay a year. They never left. Two years later, at the age of 28, John Olds became the new chief physician and superintendent of Notre Dame Memorial. The hospital stood until 1976, when after 52 years of service, it was replaced by a modern facility with the same name. The old hospital was demolished in 1981, despite fervent objections from Olds, who wanted to see it converted to a home for the elderly. John Olds died in 1985. Today, he is revered as a stellar figure in Newfoundland's history. He is also Wilfred Grenfell's most memorable legacy.