The Book of a Life

MHC Collection

While doing a long overdue sorting and clean-up of the Museum’s small research library recently, I came across a fascinating little publication entitled The Book of a Life, From Generation to Generation by James C. Connell, M.D., published in 1935 by the Ryerson Press. This slim volume is a form of medical diary, where an individual writes down his or her health history from birth until old age (presumably, the book would be started by the parent!). It’s sort of the “full life” version of those baby books where parents record their child’s early development and paste in photos and locks of hair.

Dr. J.C. Connell, portrait by Kenneth Forbes, Queen’s University collection

The author was once an influential player in medical circles here in Kingston where the Museum is located. Dr. Connell (1863-1947) was long a prominent figure in medicine, education, and administration at Queen’s University and at Kingston General Hospital. A Queen’s graduate and an early specialist in surgery of the eye, ear, nose, and throat, in 1891 he was appointed the first director of the university’s ophthalmology department and later wrote a textbook on the subject that was used by students for many years. Dean of the faculty of medicine from 1903-1929, Dr. Connell was instrumental in improving the profile and quality of medical education at the university and departmental and clinical expansion at the hospital. He was also briefly the principal of Queen’s. In retirement, he produced The Book of a Life, no doubt fueled by his decades of medical experience and his personal criteria for wise and healthy living.

Dr. Connell’s goals for his little book were clear: he wanted a means to document an individual’s complete personal record, more than the usual birth, marriage, and death information collected by the state. His vision was a volume that captured someone’s ancestry, physical characteristics and development, mental growth, education, attainments, ailments and accidents, and important incidents of life. Dr. Connell designed his book as a way to educate the public on the value of personal record keeping and to expose them to information about standards of healthy living. Coupled with this, he saw it as a useful summary record for the family physician who he recommended should examine the diary periodically and “write out the result and the admonition or advice he thinks necessary to assist development, to ward off unhealthy tendencies and, later on, to prevent the many disorders and diseases of advancing life.” Foreshadowing our modern permanent electronic integrated health record perhaps? It also gives patients a real role in their own health care.

MHC Collection
Interspersed between the pages recording the details of an individual’s health and wellbeing over the course of a lifetime, The Book of a Life contains helpful information about the body and its functions and advice on healthy living, the sort of stuff one expects to find in a guide for parents or other health service pamphlets. A wide assortment of topics cover such subjects as average growth rates in children, hygiene, healthy eating, the value of sleep, recommended body weights, details of common diseases, the desired frequency of regular physical examinations, and mental health.

What I found interesting but a little eerie were the life expectancy statistics and rates of mortality included at the top of each diary entry for a particular age. Even on the page where the book’s owner writes down particulars of his birth and parentage Dr. Connell notes “Expectancy of life is 65 years at the time of birth, if advantage is take of all the benefits of modern medicine. Without these it may be only 47 years.” This statement is revealing: it shows the change in the average lifespan from 1935 to our own time (80.4 years) but also describes an era where living standards for many Canadians were lower and professional health care was often infrequent or unavailable. Clearly, the introduction of universal Medicare has had a major impact on the lives of Canadians.

I was excited to see that our copy of The Book of a Life has been filled in by its former owner, a woman born in the Kingston area in 1896 who had received it as a gift from Dr. Connell himself. True to the doctor’s design, reading the pages of the diary I can pull together a reasonably good picture of the diarist, her health, her career, her activities and achievements, her family history, and some of her hopes and aspirations over the course of her life.

MHC Collection

For example, I learned that she was the daughter of a farmer and that her mother was assisted by a midwife at her birth — typical of the late 1800s. She was ninth child of 12 children, six boys and six girls and she had brown hair and blue eyes. Because she didn’t receive the book until she was 38, those early pages reveal little else about her early years. Her first few entries record only scant information, but I did lean that she was a trained nurse and in good health. As directed by the book, she updated her height, weight, and measurements annually. I later learned that she was a graduate of the Kingston General Hospital School of Nursing in 1921 and that she did private duty nursing after graduation. She eventually returned to KGH where she remained until retirement at age 65.

A longstanding member of Zonta, the professional women’s organisation, our nurse travelled to annual conferences in addition to trips with her sisters to various places in Ontario, Quebec, and New York State. She sometimes recorded world events that had occurred, items she’d bought, and houses she lived in. I was delighted to read of her purchase shared with her sister of a Pontiac Coupe in 1937 when she was 40. Other entries leave one begging for more. In one case she has clipped out the entry that fell under the words “Very unhappy summer” (age 43) – what was it that she wanted no one ever to see? In another instance she provided no details about the circumstances or subsequent events connected with the diamond ring she received a gentlemen when she was 49. From what I can tell, she never married.

She often recorded her annual salary with the attached notations “good”, “fair”, or “strained” dependent upon her circumstances at the time. In addition to her changing health and medical and dental procedures, she recorded details of operations of family members, their life changes, and eventual deaths. She included the death of Dr. Connell himself in 1947 when she was 51 with the annotation ““Author” of this book.” Did she anticipate that some future researcher would eventually be pouring thorough the diary’s pages? I love the routine quality of some entries: under “Friends” she often answered tersely, “As usual”.

Our nurse was a faithful diarist: she continued to make annual entries into her book until she was 88 years old in 1984, but by then it was clear that she was having difficulty writing. From other nursing school records we have on file, I believe she died four years later around the age of 92. There is so much more one can do with a document like this – it pages are full of questions as much as there are details. We know of several copies of the book in libraries – have they been filled in by their former owners? Have other copies survived elsewhere?

This is truly the “book of a life” – a marvelous record and a rare and valuable research resource. We are now adding it to the Museum’s permanent collection.

Paul Robertson

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