THE EARLY YEARS
Robert George (George as he was known) was born on September 12, 1883 in Joliette, North Dakota. He was the sixth child in a family of sixteen born to Robert and Margaret Ferguson. Life was hard on the Dakota prairies and George’s participation and education in agriculture and survival was mandatory. Hired labour was too expensive for a struggling farming family and, because of that, George was not able to attend the summer school in Joliette. His school education was erratic. By 12, he had four winter sessions behind him but was then unable to attend the Joliette school until he was 15. His life was also precariously threatened when he was 12 by diphtheria which left him with chronic laryngitis and a husky voice, both which contributed later to his career direction. By 16, George was his father’s right hand and became the farm business manager while directing various activities including the threshing and harvesting of the crops.
George was a voracious reader and was found borrowing books from neighbours while forgetting to complete the chores. He was clever, shrewd and very much a realist. He was handsome and grew to be almost 6 feet. He also harboured a violent temper when aroused. When George was 13, he attended a Methodist revival meeting in Joliette. He listened as the evangelist delivered his message of temperance and devotion to God. Those with undisciplined tempers were called to publically confess and pray. George courageously stepped forward and became determined to master his temper unless confronted with injustice. George also attended Salvation Army services led by Lieutenant Hector Habkirk and became drawn to the concept of service to others through these interactions in the Joliette community.
In 1902, George’s parents, Robert and Margaret, decided to pursue the opportunity of free homestead land in Canada which was being advertised. The lure of selling their farm, putting the proceeds in the bank and beginning again on free land was attractive. Robert sent George (aged 19) to Canada to seek for a new homestead. Young George, after travelling from Winnipeg to Calgary and Edmonton, decided that good, already plough broken land near a railroad town would be his choice. That led him to Yorkton, Saskatchewan. In July, 1902, Robert Ferguson bought the east half of section 27, and the northeast quarter of section 22, township 25, range 4 west of the second meridian,( 480 acres in total) from a local merchant, Levi Beck, for ten dollars an acre. A year later he sold his Dakota farm for twenty dollars per acre which allowed him to pay off all his debts and relocate to Canada. He assumed a $2500 mortgage at 9% interest and a further $2000 mortgage payable to Levi Beck. However, this farm was located on the edge of Yorkton and the railroad. Grain could be loaded into the railroad cars which sat on sidings next to the farm. At that time, George (20) considered farming as his lifelong career and filed a homestead claim on farmland around Kuroki. George quickly realized that the land was too scrubby and not profitable for farming and sold it in 1905.
Realizing that farming was not his calling, George decided to pursue education and, in 1904, entered Wesley College in Winnipeg to obtain his high school diploma. He needed to ‘catch up’ by studying for grades 9, 10, 11 and 12 which would allow him to pursue a career as a Methodist minister. As he was half way through his studies, his father died. The decision as to whether he should return to run the farm and assist the family or to continue his education was assisted by his mother, Margaret. She encouraged him to continue his studies and to then embark on a three year course in Arts.
There is an interesting story about the winter of Robert’s death in February 1906. The family was in mourning. There appeared, one day, a man dressed in a uniform. He told this stricken family that he, a Salvation Army chaplain, had come to aid them through the winter. The quiet determination and sincere humility of this stranger prompted George to welcome him into their humble home. The chaplain stayed the winter, helping with chores and bringing hope to the family. George watched the ‘spirit of patience’ that was present in the chaplain’s words and deeds, and determined to enter theology so that he, too, could be of service.
Every year George hurried home to Yorkton to help with the spring seeding and to assist with the harvest. Often he would return late to his classes in Winnipeg. However, in spite of little money, family and farm needs, and working as a Methodist preacher during summer months, he graduated in 1910 with his Bachelor of Arts and a bronze medal, coming second in his class. His classmates elected him Senior Stick.
A classmate in his college yearbook said:
“George Ferguson has got as much out of his college course as anyone…no finer a gentleman in its broadest sense ever graduated from Wesley College. From his father he inherited a deep sense of justice and honesty and from his mother patience and persistence. To this rich inheritance have been added, as the years have gone by, self-control, open-mindedness and sincerity…he has had…griefs and responsibilities to bear that would have crushed a less resolute heart. During the last four years of his college course he has been ‘the man of the house’ and ‘the head of the family’…he has fulfilled the expectations and trust reposed in him, quiet, jovial, kind, always the same, he has won the respect of all and the love and esteem of many. No one appreciates his friends more and no one is more appreciated by his friends…he will always be found on the firing line and never sounding the retreat. Had George been more of an athlete he would have come as near the ideal college man as one could expect.’
After his three year Arts course, he studied one year of economics at the University of Manitoba. He then proceeded to Nobleford, Alberta, to work in a Methodist mission. As he would position himself at the pulpit to deliver his sermons, he found that his voice was too husky to be heard and eventually came to realize that his childhood illness of diphtheria was still affecting his voice. He persevered and tried, every Sunday, to deliver his sermon to the parishioners. But every Sunday, he re-experienced the huskiness of his voice. George was being guided to a different path. After some thought, he determined to enter medicine in 1912. He borrowed money from his mother Margaret who was managing the Yorkton farm, building barns and a large home for the family. George also worked at the Winnipeg General Hospital and Ninette Sanatorium to help pay his way. He also, in his final year of medicine, worked in the laboratory which made typhoid vaccine for the Canadian Army.
In 1916, George graduated from medicine from the University of Manitoba. He was named in the Honour Lists as second place in his class finals. That same year he wrote and was qualified in the Dominion Council examinations allowed him to practice medicine throughout Canada. It was then that he married his sweetheart of eight years, Helen Ross. Helen was the daughter of Thomas and Maria Augusta Ross of Burford, Ontario. The Ross family which comprised Helen, her parents and her four older brothers had moved to Wynyard, Saskatchewan in 1911. Helen had studied Art at Moulton College, and had entered nursing training in 1913. Near the completion of her third year, she contracted scarlet fever, diphtheria and pneumonia. She was unable to complete her nursing training. And in 1917, Helen gave birth to their first son, Robert. They then moved to Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan so that George could take a temporary assignment at the sanatorium.
SASKATCHEWAN’S TUBERCULOSIS STRATEGY
In 1907, Dr. Maurice Seymour of Saskatchewan discovered that his son had contracted tuberculosis. Treatment could be found in a sanatorium at Saranac Lake, New York. He conferred with the director, Dr. Edward Trudeau, who indicated that tuberculosis (TB) could be arrested. Thus began Dr. Seymour’s recommendation and push for a sanatorium to be established in Saskatchewan. He made recommendations to the Saskatchewan government and suggested strategies for TB isolation on hospital wards and education of the public. Finally, in 1911, the Anti-Tuberculosis League of Saskatchewan was formed which lobbied the province for action against this dreaded disease. Dr. Seymour and Dr. Porter, secretary of the Canadian Tuberculosis Association, travelled throughout the province, meeting with residents, urging measures for prevention and fund raising for the construction of a sanatorium. Later that year, Dr. William Hart of Duluth, Minnesota was appointed as medical superintendent of the future sanatorium. Hart and Seymour traveled to the Ninette Sanatorium in Manitoba as part of their research as to the location and building of the Saskatchewan sanatorium.
It was decided that the chosen site should be on a parcel of 230 acres on the north shore of Echo Lake, west of Fort Qu’Appelle. The land was purchased for $8,250, this sum being offset by a $3000 donation from the municipality of North Qu’Appelle. The province would provide $60,000 if the League could raise $40,000 from donations. Raising the funds was difficult but construction got underway in 1914. The League negotiated a $95,000 loan from the government as the World War I began. Construction lagged because of lack of funds and needs for the war effort. In November of 1915, the Military Hospitals Commission requested utilization of the sanatorium for sick soldiers. This spurred the League and the construction so that in 1916, one pavilion and the superintendent’s residence were completed.
On July 1, 1917, Dr. George Ferguson arrived to act as temporary superintendent at the sanatorium close to Fort Qu’Appelle (known as Fort San). George’s mentor, Dr. David Stewart, who trained medical students at the Ninette Sanatorium had recommended this young doctor and assured the Saskatchewan Anti-Tuberculosis League that Dr. Ferguson was more than capable of running Fort San. The Saskatchewan province was plagued by the same TB issues as experienced in Manitoba: the influx of servicemen, the high rates of tuberculosis amongst the First Nations people and the lack of funds to support further sanatorium construction and hiring of medical professionals.
Tuberculosis was widespread within the 700,000 Saskatchewan inhabitants. There were 400 deaths and 1000 new cases every year. Typically, the afflicted were men and women in the prime of their lives who found themselves unable to work and provide for their families, who, also, became afflicted with the disease because of association and contagion. The symptoms were difficult to diagnose and often the family doctors were not able to discern the disease. By the time tuberculosis was identified, it was often advanced and highly contagious. At the same time, it was important to isolate TB patients from other medically challenged individuals. General hospitals, although few at that time in Saskatchewan, were not equipped to handle the contagion and the long rest and recuperation therapy recommended for TB patients.
FERGUSON’S WORK AT FORT SAN
George was ready for the fight against this dreaded disease. He possessed strong skills in teaching, research, clinical data and administration. Combined with those pragmatic leanings and fine education, he knew the fear and loss associated with illness and disease. His mother had been orphaned at an early age because her parents had both succumbed to TB. George, himself, had lost a sister to the disease. Often he would sit with a patient who was suffering or dying. George knew the fear and pain and loss associated with tuberculosis. He wrote later that it was his belief in God that often guided him through the dark days and nights.
Admission to the sanatorium was slow initially. However, on December 1, 1917, six members of the armed forces were admitted. By February 1918, all 70 beds were occupied. Many of the soldiers became involved in the sanatorium’s workings and even organized the Recreation Club to entertain patients and staff member and to publish a little issue called the Valley Echo. This publication helped bring a sense of community and education to subscribers and continued to serve the Fort Qu’Appelle community for 50 years.
When George first arrived at Fort San, there was a definite lack of funds. He and his family would occupy the superintendent’s home but he insisted that his family would live without electricity for one year because of the cost of stringing copper wire from the power house to their home. As superintendent, he assumed 24 hour call and, because there was no house phone, was often fetched by staff arriving at the door. Each Monday morning, patients assembled for health instructions about food, rest, coughing, exercise, walking and protecting others from infection.
In 1918, four new pavilions were added to accommodate a total of 260 patients. A year later, he became the Medical Director of Fort San, as Dr. Hart, had decided to pursue medical military work overseas. In 1919, a recreation building was erected and the sanatorium hired an x-ray technician and laboratory assistant. Physicians, such as Dr. Robert Kirkby and Dr. Harvey Boughton came on staff, while provincial groups like the Imperial order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE) raised money to expand and refurbish the children’s pavilion which opened in 1919. In 1927, the Preventorium was opened (the pavilion which housed the new born babies of infected mothers). Even the Red Cross opened a lodge for visitors in 1919.
There was also the increasing need and utilization of x-rays. Exposures were first taken in 1919 and by the end of that year, 555 exposures had been made, in 1920 there were 2,043. The films were not of good quality but it gave the physicians some barely visible insights into the lesions which depicted TB.
THE VISION FOR FORT SAN
By 1919, George had been working and learning about the tuberculosis disease within Saskatchewan for two years. He formulated his vision for Fort San as a medical facility which would house adequate and up-to-date facilities for the diagnosis and treatment of TB. He further determined that the San would become an educational centre to inform the public about the disease and to offer information about the prevention and cure. Also, and possibly in some ways the most crucial was that Fort San must pervade a home like atmosphere so that the patients could rest and heal.
Christmas celebrations included the Christmas Day visit of patients and staff by George and Helen. A wonderful dinner was prepared with all the trimmings so that those afflicted with the disease could celebrate the end of the year with the hope that the new year would bring healing.
By 1920 the sanatorium consisted of an $80,000 Administration building which housed offices, examination rooms, laboratory and x-ray departments as well as the kitchen and nurses’ quarters. There was also an $85,000 Infirmary for 80 patients with a surgical suite and sleeping balconies. Six other pavilions of various sizes offered another 170 beds. Fort San generated its own heating from it central power house and, at that same time, had barns, a piggery, a poultry ranch and a 5 acre garden for food production. In late 1921, there was a laundry facility, superintendent’s residence and seven cottages for married staff.
Funding Fort San was a common worry and frustration. However, veterans returning from overseas and discovering that they had TB were allocated a per diem allowance. These veterans outnumbered civilians by 3 to 1 with the disease. The high rate of contagion was due to the exposure to tuberculosis within barrack contacts and the hardship of service.
George, as superintendant also supported continued education of the staff. Nurses, doctors, technicians and other professionals were often sent for information and upgrading courses.
SASKATCHEWAN’S ANTI-TUBERCULOSIS COMMISSION
In 1921 the Anti-Tuberculosis Commission was established to study the issues of TB in Saskatchewan. Two hundred school children were examined throughout the province and, of those, 1% were found to have active TB. Further examinations of 162 native children in residential schools discovered that 93% tested positive to the tuberculin test.
A year later the Commission presented a number of recommendations:
- Diagnosis of TB was difficult for family doctors
- Many individuals possess advanced TB by the time diagnosis was properly identified
- Undernourished children were more susceptible to the contagion
- More sanatoria would be needed
- Provisions were needed for those children who lived in homes where others had TB
- Free treatment should be offered for those afflicted with the disease as many were unable to pay their own costs
- Improved diagnostic and follow up clinics
The result of these and other recommendations which emanated from the Commission’s findings was the planning and building of two other sanatoria. The first opened in Saskatoon in 1925 and had 175 beds; the second, in Prince Alberta which housed 310 bed. Also, after 1929 treatment for tuberculosis was free. George was placed in charge of all three sanatoria.
With the depression in the early 1930’s, finances received another crushing blow. Staff members took pay cuts while efficiency and economy were constant concerns.
George was concerned about the native population and the high incidence of tuberculosis amongst their numbers. He began to research the native susceptibility to white men’s diseases and considered the change in the natives’ life styles which affected their health. Reservation settlement and proximity, the more stationary lifestyle and hunger had resulted in epidemic levels of TB throughout the province’s natives. In 1925, George was given a research grant which was renewed annually for a total of 23 years. He began an initial program of examining young children from the File Hills, Qu’Appelle and Pasqua reserves. Natives were ten times more likely to die from the disease. Proper examination and x-rays were imperative in order to diagnose the tubercular lesions in the early stages.
It was decided to create a portable x-ray machine and generator which could travel to the reservations. By 1929, chest radiographs were standardized. Eventually, from 1943 to 1947, brothers, Robert and James Connell conceived and experimented with a faster fluorographic screen which would provide a better image of the lungs. They improved the quality of the camera lens, film and processing equipment and even bought a van. By August 1947 this miniature x-ray equipment travelled throughout Saskatchewan, taking chest photographs in every city, town, hamlet and municipality. The tuberculin positive children plummeted and the numbers of afflicted decreased.
GEORGE FERGUSON’S FAMILY
Throughout the years, George and Helen had a number of children: Robert, Helen, Margaret, Patricia, Sheelagh, John (twin of Sheelagh who died as a toddler) and David. For years the family lived at Fort San in the superintendant’s residence (the big house on the hill).
Helen Ferguson was a wonderful and artistic companion to the studious and busy George. Helen was a social woman who loved entertaining and enjoyed her children. She empowered George by seeming to know what to do in social settings and by always having the welcome mat out for those who would drop by. She was artistic by nature, loving painting, pottery making and enjoying all the arts. She seemed comfortable in natural settings and together she and George chose the location for their cottage at Echo Lake, close to Fort San. The story is that they took a canoe ride along the shore of the lake and Helen spotted the large green trees which would surround her log cottage. During those summers, many of their children and 22 grandchildren would vacation at the cottage and would come to know the beauty of the Qu’Appelle Valley.
Later, after George retired in 1948, the couple would spend the summers at the cottage and the winters in Regina. George passed 1964 and Helen in 1983.
George received many honours for his work throughout the years:
- President of the Saskatchewan Medical Association
- Senate of the University of Saskatchewan
- Chief Muskeke-O-Kemocan (Great White Physician) Honoured by the Qu’Appelle Valley Natives
- Order of the British Empire
- Honorary LLD from University of Saskatchewan
- Honorary Life Membership of the Royal Canadian Legion