Fenwick Operating Theatre: a life-saving surgery in Edwardian Kingston

Bennie Stalker two weeks after surgery, October 1901, Source: Jim Bremner

Bennie S., age 10, on the 17th of September last was accidentally shot by his brother, a lad about two years his senior . . . The arm was nearly severed from the body . . . The patient’s father ascribes the arrest of the hemorrhage to the fact that there was an old man at the house who had a “charm” for stopping bleeding . . . A doctor was procured who came a distance of twenty-two miles and remained at the house for two days, relieved his suffering and applied dressings of carbolic oil to the wound. The arm speedily became gangrenous and the little sufferer was evidently not expected to survive . . . “seventeen days” after the receipt of the injury he was started on his long journey to the Kingston general hospital. Leaving his home at six in the morning lying on a mattress in a spring waggon he reached Calabogie station on the K&P railroad at noon and arrived at the hospital about 5 p.m.

These events occurred in eastern Ontario in September – October 1901. This account reveals much about the stark realities of rural Canadian health care a century ago, but at the same time, the amazing ability of the human body to survive severe trauma and the abiding human desire to care for the sick.

At the heart of the story is young William Benjamin Stalker, who was born in 1891 and lived on a farm near Plevna. The clinical details of his misadventure and life-saving surgery are preserved in the surgeon’s report detailing the boy’s accident and medical treatment in the January 1902 Kingston Medical Quarterly. For historians, Dr. W.G. Anglin’s case study puts a human face to the ancient hospital spaces and dry administrative reports that remain as historical evidence today.

After Bennie’s all-day journey to Kingston General Hospital, he was admitted to the St. Andrew’s Ward for children in the upper storey of the Watkins Wing. Dr. Anglin describes in detail the severity of the boy’s wounds and the extreme deterioration of his arm and upper extremity. The next day we learn that Bennie was wheeled into the recently constructed Fenwick Operating Theatre. Complete amputation was the only option if the boy was to survive – grim, but effective treatment. News reports of the emergency amputations required to save lives of victims of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti spring to mind.

Gigli saw for cutting bone, MHC Collection 1976.6.37

In his account, Dr. Anglin references an array of instruments and medications now found at the Museum (Gigli saw, aneurysm needle, pressure forceps, chloroform, hypodermic, strychnine, digitalis). To a curator, these real-life references add invaluable context and relevance to our collections.

The doctor’s description of Bennie’s aftercare says much about social services of the day: “Our readers may be interested to know that having but one parent living, the little fellow has been admitted into that excellent institution the Orphans’ Home in this city.”

Dr. Anglin recorded that Bennie was an interesting patient and always quick and bright with his answers. He recounted the boy’s encounter with Dr. Alan Manby, the physician accompanying the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (King George V and Queen Mary) while on their 1901 cross-Canada tour. During a visit to KGH, Dr. Manby told Bennie that he would be unable to visit him again because of the great distance the doctor had come to be there. Bennie’s quick and unexpected response is reported to be, “”Well, I came nearly a hundred miles myself to get here.” How medical journal articles have changed.

After his amazing recovery, Bennie grew up to have a full and productive life, first as a travelling ventriloquist and later an itinerant photographer. He married and had five children. After Bennie’s death in 1940, his wife remarried and had a son named Jim Bremner. I thank Mr. Bremner and his wife Marianne who spent ten years researching Bennie’s fascinating story for bringing it to our attention. This is what helps to make history real and bring museum collections to life.

Paul Robertson

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