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Dr. Sir Wilfred Grenfell (1865 - 1940)

Wilfred Thomason GrenfellGRENFELL, Sir WILFRED THOMASON (1865-1940), medical missionary and author, was born at Parkgate, Cheshire, 28 February 1865, the second of the four sons of the Rev. Algernon Sidney Grenfell, headmaster and proprietor of Mostyn House School, Parkgate, by his wife, Jane Georgina Hutchinson, daughter of a colonel in the Indian army. He was educated at Marlborough, and resided at Queen’s College, Oxford, for the Michaelmas term of 1888, during which he played Rugby football for the university. He studied medicine at the London Hospital medical school and London University, under Sir Frederick Treves [q.v.], and qualified M.R.C.P. and M.R.C.S. in 1886. While studying medicine he came under the influence of Dwight Lynam Moody, the American revivalist, and of the brothers J. E. and C. T. Studd, and for a time conducted a Sunday school class, to which he gave instruction in the art of boxing. He was at the same time secretary in succession of the cricket, football, and rowing clubs in London University; and he thus became at an early an exponent of that ‘muscular Christianity’ which Charles Kingsley had made popular.

In 1887, the year after qualification, Grenfell joined the Royal National Mission to Deep-Sea Fishermen as a medical missionary; and after serving for five years in this capacity from Iceland to the Bay of Biscay, he became a master mariner, and fitted out the mission’s first hospital ship. In 1892 he visited Labrador, and he was so greatly shocked by what he later described as ‘the poverty and ignorance and semi-starvation among English speaking people of our own race’ that he decided to devote the rest of his life to the betterment of the lot of the people of Labrador. In 1893 he established at Battle Harbour the first hospital of what came to be known as the Labrador Medical Mission.; and as time went on he not only built other hospitals, but he also opened nursing stations, schools, orphanages, and social welfare centres. When, over forty years later, he retired, he had built up an organization that included six hospitals, seven nursing stations, four hospital ships, four boarding schools, fourteen industrial centres, twelve clothing distribution centres, a co-operative lumber mill, and a seaman’s institute at St. John’s, Newfoundland. What his lifework, , as an example of practical Christianity meant to the people of Labrador, whether whites, or Indians, or Eskimos, it would be difficult to exaggerate.

At first the Labrador Medical Mission was financed by the Royal National Mission to Deep-Sea Fishermen; but from an early date most of the necessary funds were raised by Grenfell himself. He made speaking tours through both Canada and the United States of America; and he roused such interest and support on these trips that the Labrador Medical Mission came to be almost better known in America than it was in England. In 1912 the Mission to Deep-Sea Fishermen withdrew its support; and Grenfell then organized the International Grenfell Association, with branches in England, the United States, Canada, and Newfoundland; and it was this association that stood behind Grenfell’s work during the latter part of his life.

Not only by his lecture tours, but also by his books, Grenfell aroused support for it. Beginning with Vikings of To-day (1895), he published between 1905 and 1938 a succession of books about Labrador and a number of religious books, which, although not outstanding for their literary qualities,’ have an engaging simplicity and modesty that endeared them to many people. Recognition of Grenfell’s work came to him in the form of numerous honours. The university of Oxford elected him her first honorary M.D. (1907), and he received honorary degrees from St. Andrews University and many universities and colleges both in the United States and in Canada; in 1915 he was elected an honorary fellow of the College of Surgeons of America, and in 1920 a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England; he was appointed C.M.G. in 1906 and K.C.M.G. in 1927: in 1928 he was elected lord rector of St. Andrews University; in 1935 he was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Empire Society; and in 1936 he was elected an honorary fellow of Queen’s College, Oxford.

In 1935 ill health compelled Grenfell’s retirement from active work; and he died at Charlotte, Vermont, 9 October 1940. In 1909 he married Anne Elizabeth Caldwell (died 1938), daughter of Colonel Edmund Burke MacClanahan, of Lake Forest, Illinois, and had two sons and a daughter.

[The chief source of information is Grenfell’s autobiography first published in 1919 under the title A Labrador Doctor, and re-published in 1932, in a revised and expanded form, under the title Forty Years for Labrador. See also: James Johnston, Grenfell of Labrador, 1908; A. G. Hall, Doctor Wilfred Grenfell (1919); F. L. Waldo, With Grenfell on the Labrador, 1920 and Grenfell, 1924,; D. Wallace, The Story of the Labrador,1922; B. J. Mathews, Grenfell, 1924; E. H. Hayes, Forty Years on the Labrador,1930; Joyce Reason, Deep-sea Doctor, 1942; Genevieve May Fox, Sir Wilfred Grenfell (New York), 1947.] W.S.WALLACE

Text reproduced from the Dictionary of National Biography 1931 – 1940 edited by LG Wickham Legg, by permission of Oxford University Press

The picture is reproduced from the book ‘A Labrador Doctor’ an autobiography published by Hodder & Stoughton and may be the subject of copyright.

Video: Grenfell the Doctor of the North

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