One major public health problem St. John's citizens experienced
in the early twentieth century was high infant and child
mortality. In 1906 for instance, the town's newly appointed
Medical Health Officer, Dr. Robert Almon Brehm, noted in a survey
of health conditions in St. John's that, out of 624 deaths in the
town for the year ending September 30, 1905, 208 of them had
occurred among children under the age of one year. The total
number for all children under the age of five years was 408.
Among the causes Brehm and other local authorities advanced for
this problem were the ignorant and careless methods of feeding
among the poor, the lack of proper sanitation and shelter among
the homes of the poor, and the inadequacy of a good milk
Improvements in the public health field were eventually addressed as part of a St.John's civic reform movement organized in December, 1913, by the Board of Trade and its President, William Gilbert Gosling. Born in Bermuda to a leading colonial family in 1863, Gosling had come to Newfoundland in 1881 as a clerk with the fish exporting firm of Harvey & Co., a firm of which he became a director in 1913. Well-known for his literary and historical interests, he had not previously been active in politics. His first book, published in 1910, was a history of Labrador; it stands to this day as the most comprehensive work on its subject. In 1911 he published a biography of the sixteenth century adventurer, Sir Humphrey Gilbert. The same zeal for detail Gosling demonstrated in his business and literary careers was now to be applied to the town's problems.
The result of Gosling's work was the drafting by 1916 of a new
municipal charter for St. John's which would give the Municipal
Council greater administrative and financial authority than that
possessed under the 1902 Municipal Act and its subsequent
legislative amendments. When the government in 1916 refused for
political reasons to pass the main provisions of the Charter
drawn up by Gosling and his reform colleagues, Gosling ran for
mayor in the municipal election held later in that year and was
successful. With the government after 1916 still unwilling to act
on passing the Charter in its entirety, the Charter did not
become law until 1921 - Gosling was now able to use his new
office to have some sections of the Charter enacted by the
legislature in a piecemeal manner. With regard to Council's
responsibility in the area of child welfare, Gosling had little
success. Consequently, he decided to take matters into his own
hands concerning the establishment of a community nursing service
for St. John's to look after infants and children, a service
provided for in the Charter, but for which Council had no
authority under the 1902 Municipal Act to spend money. (2)
In July, 1917, when the legislature had postponed action on the
Charter for the second time, Gosling decided to start the new
service at his own expense. With the help of his sister-in-law,
Adelaide Nutting, a Professor of Nursing at Teachers College,
Columbia University, Gosling arranged for Miss Hudson, a New York
public health nurse, to visit St. John's in August, 1917. (3)
During her month-long stay Miss Hudson gave public lectures and
advised mothers on baby care. What was needed in St. John's, she
told Gosling, was the establishment of a Maternity Home for the
reception of pregnant women, in order that they could have proper
medical care. Newly born and sick children, she suggested, should
be visited at home by community nurses, who would offer whatever
advice and assistance might be needed. Finally, a children's
hospital with surgical facilities should be set up to give seriously ill children the special attention they needed. (4)
Through negotiations with the government in January, 1918,
Gosling was finally able to achieve agreement for the
establishment of a community nursing service. The government
agreed to donate $450 towards the cost of the service for 1918,
and Gosling contributed his salary of $600 as mayor. (5) In May,
working through his sister-in-law, Gosling arranged for another
nurse to come to St. John's to get the service started and to
train local nurses to work in it. The nurse who came to St.
John's this time was Miss J. Rogers, who arrived in July. She
immediately began a round of visits to the houses of the working
poor. (6) These she described as "wretched" and an important
factor in the town's continuing high mortality rate, which in
1916 had stood at 185.25 deaths per thousand births. (7)
Miss Rogers reserved her greatest criticism for the local
midwifes, to whom expectant mothers turned because of the low
cost of their services. Not bound by any licensing system, the
midwifes varied in their knowledge of obstetrics; some of them,
Rogers discovered, were "grossly ignorant, personally untidy,
(and) even dirty in appearance" and had "teachings and practices
... altogether questionable and disgusting." In one situation
Rogers found a "young mother ... weak and thirsty" on the third
day after the birth of her first baby. The midwife had told this
mother "not to eat anything and to drink very little for the
first few days" lest she contact "milk fever."
Rogers was also appalled by the fatalistic attitude of many
parents towards infant mortality, which was often regarded as an
act of Providence. One mother told her: "I have 'borned' eleven
children, but praise God, seven of them are in Heaven." In the
same vein, a grandmother spoke as follows: "It is trying to save
the Babies you are. Well, its Almighty God takes 'em or leaves
'em, and you can't help it or I can't help it." (8)
If the nascent community nursing service faced attitudinal
problems in St. John's, its greatest difficulty remained
financial. (9) The arrangements Gosling had made with the
government was for one year only; in 1919 no grant was
forthcoming from the colony. (10) The reason for this lack of
support is unclear; but the government may have been reluctant to
commit itself to the whole scheme of child welfare as proposed by
Hudson in 1917. In the circumstances Gosling was left to pay the
$3,500 in salaries required by the three local nurses who were to
take over from nurse Rogers out of his own salary of $600.
Fortunately, his cause was taken up by the Women's Patriotic
Association which had been established in 1914 to provide funds
for servicemen and their families." In June, 1919, the Women's
Patriotic Association established a child welfare committee to
support the new nursing service. The prime mover here was, no
doubt, Gosling's wife, Armine, a member of the Women's Patriotic
Association executive. Through house-to-house canvassing and
several large private donations, the Child Welfare Committee
collected over $6,000 in mid-1919 for the payment of the nurses'
salaries, the establishment of milk stations, and the
distribution of clothing by the Association to needy families.
In May, 1920, a small children's hospital was opened by the
Association, but this had to be closed a few months later for
financial reasons. It bore fruit, however, when the government a
year later opened a children's ward in the General Hospital.
During 1920 the Child Welfare Committee raised more money itself
and received contributions from both Gosling and the government.
(13) The government agreed on February 28, 1920, to make
available an annual grant of $700 to the Committee. Gosling's
contribution of $1,000 was equal to the amount the Municipal
Council itself would contribute to child welfare once the Charter
became law. (14) In January, 1921, the Women's Patriotic
Association disbanded only to be reorganized in May as the Child
Welfare Association under the honorary presidency of Armine
Gosling. The new Association built on the work of its
predecessor, cooperating closely with Council's Medical Health
Officer and government authorities in combatting infant mortality
in the town. (15)
1.Evening Telegram, June 16, 1906. See also "Report of the Commission on Public Health, 1910," in Journal of the House of Assembly, 1911, 594-604 and "Report of the Public Health Department for the Year 1916," in Ibid, 1917, 510-25.
2. On Gosling's career in municipal politics, see Melvin Baker, "The Government of St. John's, Newfoundland, 1800-1921" (Ph.D. thesis, The University of Western Ontario, 1980), 332-79.
3. William Gosling to the Daily News, July 26, 1917.
4. A. N. Gosling, William Gilbert Gosling: A Tribute (New York, n.d.), 88-92. See also William Gosling to the Daily News, April 9, 1919.
5. Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, hereafter PANL, GN2/5, Special File of the Colonial Secretary, file 27-K, Colonial Secretary Halfyard to Municipal Council Secretary-Treasurer Slattery, January 22, 1918; and St.John's Municipal Council Minute Book, November 22, 1917.
6. PANL, GN2/5, file 27-K, William Gosling to Colonial Secretary Halfyard, May 31, 1918; and St. John's Municipal Council Minute Book, July 4, 1918.
7. William Gosling to the Daily News, July 26, 1917.
8. "Child Welfare Report of Community Nurse Rogers" published in the Daily News, September 14, 1918.
9. Gosling, William Gilbert Gosling, 93; and William Gosling to the Daily News, November 26, 1918.
10. PANL, GN2/5, file 27-K, R. A. Brehm to Prime Minister Squires, February 21, 1920.
11. Joyce Nevitt, White Caps and Black Bands: Nursing in Newfoundland to 1934 (St. John's 1978), 111.
12. Armine Gosling to the Daily News, June 17, 1919; and Nevitt, White Caps and Black Bands, 121-22. See also the address Armine Gosling presented to the Ladies' Reading Room on the St. John's child welfare movement and published in the Daily News, December 2, 1920.
13. Nevitt, White Caps and Black Bands, 124, 265; and Daily News, December 2, 1920.
14. PANL, GN2/5, file 27-K, Deputy Colonial Secretary Mews to R. H. O'Dwyer, March 2, 1920; Daily News, December 2, 1920; and Nevitt, White Caps and Black Bands, 124.
15. Nevitt, White Caps and Black Bands, 124-25; and PANL, GN2/5,
file 27-K, George Cake to Deputy Colonial Secretary Mews, May 7,