“It’s tempting Providence, it is!” he kept saying. “Sail this here ship on Friday the thirteenth? With all them blinkin’ mines still loose in the sea? It’s only askin’ for trouble, that’s all!” This was the warning given to Nurse Myra Grimsley in 1921 prior to her departure from England to her new assignment in Newfoundland. In May of that year, she arrived in the small fishing hamlet of Daniel’s Harbour, which remained her home for the rest of her life. Here she became the only medical help along 200 miles of storm-swept coast and an invaluable member of this spread-out community. Half a century later, Myra Bennett was still nursing and enjoying the “unexpected” adventures of her profession. Myra Bennett (1890–1990) has received numerous awards and titles of distinction for her work, including a doctorate of science, Member of the Order of the British Empire, and Member of the Order of Canada. Her life story has been documented for print and television and adapted for the stage.
Late in the summer of that first year at Daniel’s Harbour, Myra began the keeping of a diary. The book itself is of black oilcloth and is nothing more than the kind of school scribbler which sold for five or ten cents at the time. It apparently accompanied Myra on some of her trips up the coast, because it still smells of herring and the spray has left a little tide mark on the inside cover. The first entry is dated August 26, 1921.
Today I have been “called to task” in a letter from S. Gregory. Unintentionally, it is true—but she says that a diary of a life such as mine would be interesting reading in coming years—“if the person were not too lazy to write one”—or similar words to that effect. Today—therefore—I commit myself unto the keeping a diary and trust to find pleasure in the reading of it in years to come if I am spared. Three months ago I arrived at Daniel’s Harbour and never for one moment since have I regretted coming. The need for medical help is beyond my power of description. The day is beautifully calm and warm. The sea is like glass and today is marked by the fact that the Governor—Sir Charles Alexander Harris—paid us a visit. The duties of “Mayor and Corporation” rested upon my shoulders as the only “Official” here. The men have all gone away to work on the making of a road between Deer Lake and Bonne Bay in order to obtain sufficient money to procure the winter’s provisions. I greeted the Governor upon his landing and also Captain Hamilton who accompanied him and I escorted them round the settlement and to my headquarters. A meeting was held in the schoolhouse and the Governor addressed the inhabitants. I replied in the stead of the people who were all too shy to speak.
Mr. J.D. Henry spoke immediately afterwards and later embarrassed me by much praise both for my work on the coast and the “eloquence” of my impromptu speech. I believe the Governor and his party went away very pleased with the reception offered them. We found his visit most enjoyable. Oh! what a treat to speak with cultured people! After the departure of the steamer I raced back to indulge in my lovely mail—wherein was the letter that has moved me to commence this diary. Work today has been quiet—a visit to a mother and baby—eighth day—a child whose face I had to envelope in a mask-eczema—a consultation re haemorrhoids—and an insect sting complete the day so far. Now for a time on the harmonium and the day is finished. Thank God for all His mercies . . . .
In regard to the visit of the governor that summer, it is interesting to note that Sir Alexander was as intrigued with the event as Myra was, for the following brief item appeared a few months later in the London Daily Mail, just after the governor had concluded his term of office.
Sir Alexander Harris, ex-governor of Newfoundland, speaking at the Royal Colonial Institute, Northumberland, Ave. W.C., said the English woman could be as good a pioneer as ever was any of the old navigators.
During an official tour he called at Daniel’s Harbour, an isolated settlement on a long stretch of coast, which was the headquarters of a nurse sent by the wives committee.
“When we arrived a small crowd awaited us. We were received not by a magistrate or policeman or any usual representative of authority but by a bright looking nurse in full nurse’s uniform, looking as though she had just come out of St. Thomas’ Hospital.
“Most of the leading men were away on some distant fishing trip, probably the Labrador, and those who were left behind were shy and awkward, and huddled behind the nurse, in some doubt of the governor whom they had never seen before.
“It was the nurse who offered an impromptu address of welcome; it was the nurse who marshalled a procession to the school, and it was the nurse who returned a speech of thanks to my address, and very well Miss Grimsley did it.”
One of the totally unexpected problems that confronted Myra in her brave new world was that of petty politics, and while the reader will perhaps only smile at the following entry, it is quite evident that when she wrote this, Myra was certainly not amused.
4:30 p.m. Wire just arrived from Governor’s at Howes Cove to effect that upon my future visits to Port Saunders I make my headquarters at H’s. This arrangement gives me great displeasure. The man is a brawling swaggerer—not over conscientious or scrupulous—and diametrically opposed to those who befriended me on previous visits. What can be the idea? Originally there was a statement on the part of J.D. Henry that he alone had procured a nurse for the coast, and that her headquarters would be Port Saunders. There was great lack of accommodation but of course I should have found shelter. Lady Harris, however, who had the welfare of the nurse at heart communicated with the Reverend T. Greavett—Church of England—minister for the coast, making him responsible for my headquarters. He procured rooms for me at Daniel’s Harbour greatly to the chagrin of J.D. Henry who considered that T. Greavett’s action was a personal affront to him. There was much bickering and unfortunately J.D. Henry used expressions that were unbecoming to an English gentleman. My opinion is that I am at the proper spot because being central I am accessible for each end of my district whereas stationed at either end it would be a practical impossibility to reach the farther end with any speed during an emergency. What a pity that an English gentleman cannot acquiesce gracefully to the inevitable! It makes such heartburnings to bandy words. Of course the Governor’s request must be complied with—but I am hoping for a not too unpleasant time in consequence. There can’t be a great depth of soul in people who brag about never giving five cents to the Church. God forgive me for passing judgement—who am the greatest of sinners!
The pulling of teeth continued to be one of Myra’s most frequent services, and it was also one of the most troublesome. She confesses now that she had not really given much thought to dentistry when she was preparing herself in England, but before setting sail she had nevertheless had the foresight to purchase an instrument for extracting teeth which bore the assuring title “universal forceps” and was recommended to her as being “effective on any tooth in the head.” It was this solitary instrument with which the plucky young nurse now launched herself into the dental profession, and the first results almost ended this part of her career before it was fairly begun because the forceps that had been guaranteed to pull any tooth in the head were so hopelessly inadequate that Myra hesitated to use them at all. Eventually two other pairs of forceps were supplied by the Ladies Committee in St. John’s and later, when Corner Brook became a papermaking centre and could thus afford its first dentist, her old friend Dr. Fisher gathered up the forceps he had been using during the years when he had been forced to pull teeth as part of his general practice, and thankfully donated them to Myra.
How badly the inhabitants of Daniel’s Harbour and beyond were in need of dental attention may be judged from the fact that before the opening of the mill at Corner Brook the nearest qualified dentist was at St. John’s. True, at Cow Head there was an amateur practitioner who had invented a tooth-yanking machine that was quite well known all down the coast when Myra came. The most distinguishing feature of this was a leather-covered ball which was just big enough to fit inside the average human mouth. The ball permitted the leverage to be applied to the roof of the patient’s mouth without putting a hole through it. The device, so Myra was told, generally worked somewhat better than a set of blacksmith’s tongs—which was the most common alternative, and no one seemed to be perturbed by the fact that there was really no way to wash or disinfect the gadget.
Once again, however, Myra discovered that the physical infirmity was sometimes more easily dealt with than the ignorance with which it was often surrounded. Regarding her role as a tooth puller she once told a nurses’ magazine:
I have been extremely lucky, in that I have not had any disasters with teeth extractions, in spite of the bad state of the mouths with which I had to deal. Superstition played a great part in the lives of the people, and the one which I could never understand as having any virtues, was that which was considered a certain cure for nosebleed. Merely to hang a yard of green ribbon around the victim’s neck would halt the bleeding, or so they asserted. I have never seen it done, but I do remember one occasion when I was attending a particularly severe post nasal bleed—using plugs and coagulants—hearing the patient tell her husband to go to a relative and ask him to “charm” it, and this in absentis too. I immediately offered to go away, if the charm were to be effective, my services would not be needed. I had already stayed by for a couple of days, including all of one night, so I would have been quite relieved if the condition could be arrested by someone somewhere reciting something. Needless to say, the patient and her relatives preferred my active presence and administrations to the problematical “cure” of the charmer, and eventually, the patient was removed to hospital by steamer and there looked after. But superstition dies hard.
Patients have told me quite seriously that they have been relieved of toothache by having it charmed, but, they sadly say, the tooth only rots away in your head.
What proportion of the inhabitants relied on “charming” away a toothache is not quite clear, but certainly there were always patients with uncharmed bad teeth waiting for Myra everywhere she went. The fact that Myra used cocaine to alleviate the pain doubtlessly helped spread her fame.
Thursday, September 1
High wind and rain. Feeling that I needed exercise I went to the church Sanctuary and cleaned the floor. Polishing is fine for low spirits! Have just pulled out a wretched stump for an old man. He thinks that tooth extraction with cocaine is merely fun!
Many things — commentaries on history, Newfoundland society, the meeting of cultures foreign to one another — contribute to the richness of Green’s narrative. To sum up, ‘Don’t Have Your Baby in the Dory’ is a book we are fortunate to have, about a woman whose contribution to our history is indelible.-- Western Star --