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Doctor Of Adventure



As a physician and British Columbia statesman, John Sebastian Helmcken was well travelled by the late 1800s.

British Columbia physician John Sebastian Helmcken had a lot of experience to draw upon when he sat down to write his memoirs in the 1890s. For starters, he had travelled the world, logging some 45,000 miles by sailing vessel. And later, while working as a surgeon for the Hudson’s Bay Company, he had piled up countless miles of rough wilderness travel by canoe and horse. In still another role, he was instrumental in B.C.’s decision to join Confederation.

Indeed, Helmcken’s role in the early years of B.C. medicine and politics led the provincial government, in 1913, to name Canada’s fifth highest waterfall after him. With a vertical drop of 135 metres, the falls are located 270 kilometres southeast of Prince George, at the entrance to Wells Gray Provincial Park.

Raised and educated in a place far removed from the Canadian wilderness, Helmcken, who was born June 5, 1824, in London’s Whitechapel district, was the eldest son of a broken-down, heavy-drinking man who had toiled in a large sugar refinery before becoming licensee of a pub. His mother—the family’s mainstay—was a strong, determined woman who worked from morning to night.

Left fatherless at age 15, Helmcken worked first as a chemist and then as a druggist. He aspired to become a doctor and so in addition to taking messages and delivering medicines to patients’ homes, the undersized lad compounded pills, bled, cupped, applied leeches and administered enemas.

His apprenticeship was followed by four years of lectures and study at London’s prestigious Guy’s Hospital, during which time he scooped up numerous awards. In the spring of 1847, he was admitted as a licentiate of the Apothecaries’ Society. And then in March 1848, before reaching the age of 24, he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Helmcken, however, didn’t confine himself to his studies at Guy’s. In the spring of 1847, as ship’s doctor in the HBC supply ship Prince Rupert, he journeyed to and from York Factory, a Hudson’s Bay Company outpost on Hudson’s Bay.

Following that adventure—in 1848—he served as ship’s doctor in the Malacca that sailed first to India and then on to China. On the return voyage, he bled a sick officer who later died, prompting Helmcken to observe, “Bleeding in epilepsy either kills or cures.”

When he returned home in September 1849, the young “medico” realized the time had come for him to make a long-term decision about his medical career. He contemplated establishing a practice in London, but jettisoned that idea after concluding it would involve too many years of struggle, and yield only a small income.

Still hungry for adventure and with no other prospects in mind, he accepted an HBC offer to become the company’s surgeon at Fort Vancouver, located on the Columbia River in the United States. Back then, the British-owned HBC controlled the western fur trade, including the area of present-day Washington and Oregon. However, many of the American settlers who moved into this area in the 1830s refused to recognize the authority of the HBC. Territorial claims were settled in the 1846 Oregon Treaty which established B.C.’s southern boundary. While anticipating this result, the HBC—in 1843—moved its headquarters to Fort Victoria, present-day Victoria, on sparsely populated Vancouver Island.

The HBC had developed a policy of stationing medical men at its forts to maintain the health of its employees, but since the company was in business to make money for its shareholders, Helmcken was hired as a surgeon and a clerk. He was taken on for five years at £100 per annum, the equivalent of $238 Cdn today. He was also allowed free passage home at the end of his term.

And so before proceeding to Fort Vancouver, the new HBC recruit was required to serve at Fort Victoria. He arrived at the fort in March of 1850 after an almost interminable 5 1/2-month voyage in the HBC supply ship, the Norman Morison.

As was customary on such long voyages, the wooden ship ran the gamut of weather and sailing conditions. In the Bay of Biscay, she was buffeted by high seas, and while rounding Cape Horn, at the tip of South America, she encountered horrendous gales, hailstorms and choppy seas that were 10 times more dangerous than the huge rollers Helmcken had seen on an earlier voyage off the Cape of Good Hope.

The voyage was made worse by an outbreak of the dreaded smallpox, which attacked some 20 passengers. Helmcken administered some ship-supplied vaccine, but it was used to good purpose only once as most of the passengers had already been vaccinated or had had smallpox. In any event, only one passenger died from the illness.

Protests about poor food were another feature of the voyage. There were also occasional fights. Moreover, as the weeks lengthened, everybody, including Helmcken, grew tired of the empty seascape and longed to be ashore. To overcome the monotony, the young doctor whiled away the weary months by making bamboo bird cages.

The Victoria that greeted Helmcken and the 80 other immigrants was a tiny settlement the HBC had founded only nine years earlier as a trading outpost. Fort Victoria boasted a large stockade that enclosed a dozen buildings, among which was a three-storey-high octagonal bastion armed with cannons. A place called Bachelors’ Hall became the doctor’s interim home.

Short and slightly built with a fairly large head, the doctor was a genial man. Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft observed: “He had deep, clear, intelligent eyes, in which there was self-confidence and critical discrimination, but no malice—and given to much laughter.”

Initially, it was expected that Helmcken would become secretary to the newly appointed governor of Vancouver Island, Richard Blanshard. Instead, in 1850 he was dispatched as company surgeon to an isolated coal-mining post on the northern end of Vancouver Island.

At the time, the area was seething with unrest, triggered by disputes between the HBC and the miners. So bitter had relations between the company and its “servants” become that Blanshard, in June of that year, appointed Helmcken magistrate with the task of adjudicating conflicts between the two sides. It was an invidious position to assign to a company employee. The doctor knew this and so he found a way to shed the responsibility as soon as he could.

Helmcken left the post in December 1850 after being summoned to Fort Victoria to treat an ailing Blanshard. In a canoe manned by Indians, he set off with cedar mats, a bottle of brandy, grub, matches and muskets to travel the 300 miles south to the fort.

Canoeing was only one of the many new skills he had to master after arriving on Vancouver Island. He also had to learn how to hack his way through forest wilderness, how to handle a musket and, since he had rarely ridden in England, how to manage a horse. This last skill proved indispensable whenever he made house calls to patients who lived far from the fort. Quite often he had to negotiate rough, often circuitous trails for hours on end.

After returning to Fort Victoria, Helmcken discovered two pending changes that would have a big impact on his life. First, James Douglas, the HBC’s visionary chief factor, had decided the young doctor was not to proceed to Fort Vancouver, but was to remain at Fort Victoria as medical officer. Secondly, Blanshard had tendered his resignation as governor, and would eventually, in September 1851, be replaced by Douglas, who would also continue to serve as the HBC’s chief factor.

The first development was not unwelcome as Helmcken had fallen in love with pretty, dark-complexioned Cecilia, Douglas’s eldest daughter. They were married Dec. 27, 1852. Cecilia would give birth to seven children (three died in infancy) before succumbing to pneumonia in 1865.

To provide accommodation for himself and his wife, he had a three-room log cabin built on a small lot Douglas had given him, located next door to the Douglas home. Built of six-inch logs—squared on two sides—the cabin would be the first wing of Helmcken House, an unpretentious wood-shingled dwelling sandwiched today between Victoria’s Thunderbird Park and the Royal British Columbia Museum. Now a public museum operated by the Royal British Columbia Museum, Helmcken House and its contents provide a fascinating look into the life and times of the doctor, his work in the wilderness and his family.

While Cecilia ran the home, Helmcken attended to the company sick. Other patients included inmates as well as strangers who showed up at the fort. Not surprisingly, he helped establish new medical facilities, one being Victoria’s first hospital, the Royal Hospital (now the Royal Jubilee Hospital), which he was instrumental in founding in 1858 and which he later served as president. It is also interesting to note that another hospital in Victoria—the General—is located on a road named after the doctor.

Helmcken also filled requisitions for medicines submitted by HBC posts along the west coast and in the interior. When referring to the shipments, he described them as “so many purges, so many pukes, and so many dozen of quinine and calomel, etc.”

Shortly after Douglas replaced Blanshard as governor, he conscripted Helmcken and some other settlers to apprehend an Indian who had killed somebody’s cow. The doctor was placed in charge of one of two musket-equipped boats sent in pursuit of the Indian, who lived in a village across the water from the fort. Fortunately, the settlers never had a chance to discharge their rusty weapons because while their boat was still in the water, Indians stormed the vessel and wrested the weapons from the crew. A short note in his memoirs makes it clear that the Indians were dead serious because “some (were) blackened—all yelling—having muskets, axes, knives and what not….” Evidently, discretion triumphed over valour because Helmcken and his crew returned to the fort, much to Douglas’s displeasure.

Not all of his encounters with Indians were hostile. From time to time he ministered to them, as on one occasion when a tree fell and crushed a man’s leg. Helmcken attended the victim in the fort, assisted by a medico from a visiting ship. Regrettably, however, the man died after his thigh was amputated.

Helmcken’s most conspicuous service to the Indians occurred during the smallpox epidemic of 1862, which author Wilson Duff has described as “the most terrible single calamity to befall the Indians of British Columbia.” Introduced to Victoria by a miner who had arrived from San Francisco, Calif., in March of that year, the disease spread rapidly among the vulnerable coastal communities, claiming the lives of an estimated 1,000 to 1,200 Indians in Victoria alone.

It should also be said that like most whites of his time, Helmcken had mixed views of the Indians. He admired them for many qualities, but remarked at one point that “they are Indians still. The breed remains, and will require a great deal of crossing to make a superior race.”

Still, despite his ambivalent and contradictory feelings towards Indians, he took steps to counteract smallpox among them. In April 1862, a month after the disease reached Vancouver Island, the British Daily Colonist newspaper reported that he had vaccinated over 500 Indians.

Helmcken reports vaccinating the Indians, but since the two terms vaccination and inoculation were often confused and used interchangeably it is likely he employed the method most commonly used during this epidemic, inoculation, which involved the injection of the variola virus taken from a scab of a smallpox patient.

In 1856, the doctor entered politics after his father-in-law persuaded him to run in Esquimalt and Victoria District for a seat in Vancouver Island’s first legislative assembly. Elected by acclamation, he was chosen as the assembly’s speaker, a position he held for several years. After the colony was united with the mainland colony of British Columbia in 1866, he joined the heated debate that eventually decided the permanent location of the united colony’s capital in Victoria. For two years, the capital of the combined colonies had been New Westminster.

When B.C.’s possible entry into Confederation became a burning issue in the late 1860s, Helmcken was among the naysayers. In fact, on Nov. 3, 1868, he was elected to the Legislative Council of British Columbia on an anti-Confederation platform. Canada, he contended, would or could not provide the trading arrangements and cash subsidies necessary to cure B.C.’s commercial and financial problems. Moreover, no union would be meaningful without a railway linking West and East and he was not persuaded that Canada would or could build one.

The doctor-politician began to modify his view on Confederation after pro-Confederation Governor Anthony Musgrave appointed him to B.C.’s executive council on Dec. 31, 1869. Musgrave helped the process by pointing out that when the correct population figure was used to calculate subsidies, a union became financially practicable. One of Helmcken’s friends, meanwhile, B.C.’s chief commissioner of lands and works, provided additional ammunition for the shift, insisting that a railway could be built through the mountains.

Helmcken edged closer to becoming a staunch advocate of Confederation in the spring of 1870 when, as one of three Confederation delegates, he journeyed by train across the U.S. to Ottawa to help negotiate the terms of union. The experience convinced him that Canada could, indeed, pierce the Rocky Mountains with a ribbon of steel.

With British Columbia’s entry into Confederation in the summer of 1871, Helmcken retired from politics. Friends in high places could not interest him in becoming a senator, premier or lieutenant governor. Instead, he served as physician to the provincial jail, filled the post of coroner for a time and, until 1885, retained his HBC appointment. That same year he also became the president of the newly formed British Columbia Medical Society, from which position he influenced the establishment of the licensing body for provincial doctors, the Medical Council of British Columbia.

Conscientious to a fault, the well-travelled doctor still responded to house calls, no matter what time of day or night. On such occasions, recalled the celebrated artist Emily Carr, just the doctor’s step coming up the stairs made you feel better immediately.

Before he died in Victoria on Sept. 1, 1920, at age 96, Helmcken could certainly look back on a life crammed with travel, adventure and public service.


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