Pioneer Doctor:
Dr. James Smith 

Pioneer Doctor: Dr. James Smith, a local boy who became a doctor and served his community for his entire life was a testament to Grey County community spirit.


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Today many of us take our health care for granted. If we are not feeling well, we call our doctor and make an appointment. If our health needs are more serious, we go to the local hospital emergency ward. But in the early days of this region, seeking medical help was not always that easy. Consequently, one the most important persons during the early years of Grey County was the local doctor. One of those who took up this vital profession of pioneer doctor was Dr. James L. Smith who was born in Bentinck Township in 1861. 

Dr. Smith was the son of William Smith, who had emigrated here from the Orkneys. At first, Smith taught school for six years, but the yearning to be a doctor was too strong. He entered the School of Medicine at the University of Toronto. He graduated in 1890 and set up a practice in Dornoch. 

In the early days of Grey County there were no ambulances, cars, telephones or wonder drugs. Instead, the health of the community was solely dependent upon the local pioneer doctor. When someone fell ill, a messenger was sent to find the doctor so he could come and cure the illness or mend an injury. 

The pioneer doctor usually travelled by horse and buggy. In the winter he replaced the buggy with a sled, but if the snow drifts were too high for the horses to make their way the doctor was forced to make his house calls on foot, wading through snow which was often waist high. 

When motor cars became available, Dr. Smith purchased a Ford to make his rounds, but more often than not he preferred to visit his patients on his more familiar horse and buggy. He said he preferred the horse and buggy because on the return trip from a patient's home he could "throw the lines over the dashboard, go to sleep and the horse would find its own way home". 

On one occasion, when the doctor had put the horse on "auto-pilot" Dr. Smith was involved in an accident. The horse had failed to turn out far enough to miss another buggy heading in the opposite direction. The two vehicles locked wheels. It was late at night and after the two drivers separated their rigs. The doctor wryly commented that "only a doctor and damned fool would be abroad at that hour ... and he was the doctor." 

For many years Dr. Smith served the medical needs of residents in the Dornoch and Durham areas. However, during the outbreak of the Spanish flu which wreaked havoc throughout North America at the end of the First World War, Dr. Smith was forced to move his practice to Durham to more effectively treat the victims of this epidemic. 

In Durham, he worked tirelessly to treat as many patients as possible. On one occasion he saw 100 patients in one day. Despite the long hours of serving the medical needs of the area Dr. Smith was also active in other areas of life in the community. He served on church boards and school boards. In 1923-24 he entered the world of politics and became the mayor of Durham. 

Dr. Smith was a familiar figure in and around Durham up until his death on Dec. 31, 1958. Although his life was unique, many other doctors who served the medical needs of the citizens in the early years of Grey County, played similar roles in their own community. Without these dedicated men who served as a pioneer doctor, life would have been much more difficult for the early settlers of Grey County. 

The information used in this article came from Farm Lanes to Bentinck, the about-to-be-released new history of Bentinck Township.

A version of this article originally appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times on August 4, 2000

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