Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 16, 2017
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The Bay’s best buy

In between his day job with HBC, William Fraser Tolmie was a man of medicine and the mountains

As Canadians, we have plenty to be proud of. As Canadian physicians, even more. Among the brightest spots in our story are the contributions made in the fields of science and medicine. Consider, for instance, those made by pioneers like Maude Abbott, Frederick Banting and Charles Best, as well as visionaries like Tommy Douglas, Sir William Osler and Wilder Penfield.

Perhaps this desire to heal arises from the first-hand struggles experienced by the many who’ve come to Canada from other countries. Or, perhaps it comes from a refusal to give up in the face of adversity, polite though we may be about it.

From within this rich tradition of forging new trails, there’s one individual who stands as a true Renaissance man: Dr William Fraser Tolmie, a 19th-century wonder kid who traded furs, climbed mountains, picked flowers, studied languages, played politics and performed surgeries.

Highlands MD

William Fraser Tolmie came into the world on February 3, 1812, in the town of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. His mother died when he was young so he was sent to live with an aunt. After being inspired by one of his uncles, Tolmie decided to study medicine. He graduated from the University of Glasgow at 20, then set out to find his place in the world.

Not content to fight the cholera epidemics of the day, and craving real adventure, Tolmie took an appointment as a medical officer with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Perhaps the romantic idea of the Canadian wilderness appealed to him — he was a child of the Highlands, after all.

He began an arduous eight-month journey to get there, travelling on the ship Ganymede from England and ultimately landing in Fort Vancouver, Washington. During his weeks at sea, he read incessantly, devouring classic works in natural history, geography, botany, literature, medicine and surgery. He was focused on self-improvement with an almost obsessive quality.

He arrived at his post in Fort Nisqually in 1832, where he began to work as the clerk and surgeon for the fur-trading region then known as the Columbia District. The area was as wild as wild could be, but Tolmie took to the land immediately. He developed a love of mountaineering and, during an extended foray into the wild in 1833, the 21-year-old doctor became the first European to climb Mount Rainier. The date was September 2 and, though his Indian guides led him up to one of its snowy summits, the point would eventually be named Tolmie Peak.

Ever the archivist, Tolmie recorded the events faithfully in his journal, describing everything he came across including a previously unknown flowering plant, a species now known as Tolmie’s saxifrage (Saxifraga tolmiei). His interest in botany was a lifelong passion and he often explored the fields and forests in search of medicinal flowers and plants.

HBC rewards

His enthusiasm for his day job, however, was far more tepid, as an entry in his journal reveals: “Now three years since I bid adieu to the shores of Britain and my liking for the Hudson’s Bay Service is by no means increasing.” Still, even though he returned home after his initial five-year contract was up, he soon returned, rising up through the ranks of the HBC, eventually being named head of its farming division and then Chief Factor of Fort Nisqually in 1855.

Among his most significant achievements was crossing North America in 1841 — from Fort Vancouver to the HBC headquarters at York Factory in Manitoba — in less than four months… without drinking so much as a sip of alcohol. A teetotaller by nature and puritan in every way, Tolmie’s seriousness and temperance were as renowned as his intellect. His ease with language was also among his finer qualities, which he put to good use in 1855 helping to resolve one of the Indian conflicts, the Puget Sound War.

Married to work

Despite his somewhat dour personality, Tolmei was as successful in his personal life as in his professional one. In 1850, he married Jane Work, his boss’s daughter. The union was nothing if not prolific: the couple had 12 children together. One of them, a boy by the name of Simon, would become the much-loved 21st premier of British Columbia.

In 1859, Tolmie was transferred, so he packed up the family and moved to Victoria on Vancouver Island. There he began to focus on politics and was elected to the House of Assembly of Vancouver Island, through which he fought tirelessly for Confederation until the Island was annexed by the mainland in 1866. During the 1870s, he served in the BC Legislature, mainly advocating for a free public-school system, even though he faced powerful opposition. When he retired from public service, he returned to Cloverdale, his estate in Saanich in the countryside near Victoria, where he famously built the island’s first stone house.

Life studies

During his years in Victoria, he practiced medicine sporadically, concentrating mainly on his work with the HBC. Still, he is perhaps best known for performing one of the first modern surgeries in the West Coast and, perhaps even Canada: the removal of a tumour from the chest of a sailor. He had brought some stethoscopes with him from Scotland and had a collection of medical instruments at his disposal courtesy of the HBC. Always ready to make good use of his tools, Tolmie’s medical practice ran the gamut from basic care to complex surgeries.

In Victoria, he also returned to one of his first loves: botany. Following a trip to Hawaii, he introduced different seed species, such as acacias and dahlias, to the local ecosystem. He was also the fist president of the Victoria Agricultural Association. Plants named for him include Tolmie’s onion (Allium tolmiei) and Tolmie’s star-tulip (Calochortus tolmiei). There’s even a bird named for him (Oporornis tolmiei, aka MacGillivray’s Warbler) and a state park in Washington.

After retiring from the HBC in 1871, and then from public service and medicine in 1878, the doctor began to seriously study the Indian languages he’d encountered during his career in the bush. With co-author George Dawson, he published an exhaustive dictionary of the Indian languages in 1884.

After his beloved wife Jane died in 1880, he was a changed man, retiring to near solitude. He ate every meal alone in his library, except at Christmas. Tolmie died at Cloverdale on December 8, 1886. He was 74 years old and, by all accounts, a proud Canadian, despite his Scottish roots.

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