With the rapid population explosion at the beginning of the 19th century for the Village of Ponoka and the surrounding rural districts there became an urgent need for many new services, especially vital medical assistance for the countless new Pioneer families and individuals looking for new employment here and out on the prairies of Alberta.
Our history books and the Fort Ostell Museum are full of many touching stories, photos, and artifacts of the colourful but rugged early years of the practise of pioneer medicine in and around our community. Long before there was a hospital in or even near Ponoka the medical services and urgent emergencies were served by hardy new professional physicians from their homes or on sudden trips by horse and buggy around the community or for miles out into the vast countryside in all sorts of wild and unpredictable weather and tough road conditions. In the very early days there were some maternity homes run by nurses in Ponoka, but most of the babies then were delivered in the family home and on the long trips the doctor may have been accompanied a neighbour woman or mid-wife, trained or otherwise to lend assistance. On many of the urgent calls the good doctor would arrive to find no preparation whatsoever, but always came equipped with a thoroughly sterilized gown and bundles of newspaper along with his vital little black bag. They were always warmly welcomed to every home and during those long vigils awaiting birth or recovery they may have had to stay overnight and would often be entertained by the personal experiences and hilarious tales of the mid-wife and the family, many which could not be repeated here. Later in the rugged winters, floods, or storms the doctors cars were frequently abandoned and they had to be rescued for the rest of the journey by the farmer and his trusty team or sleigh, which all carried a supply of blankets and were also called on many times to be an ambulance.
The early doctors of Ponoka
Ponoka’s very first physician was Dr. A. A. Drinnan, who came in 1902 and would faithfully serve the growing communities until 1934 when he retired to his palatial home and fox farm overlooking Chain Lakes until his passing. Dr. W. A. Campbell arrived in the soon-to-be town in 1903, later taking over our first drug store with his brother Dan in the Badsgaard building in 1910, and continued to work out of his Chipman Avenue practise with Dr. A. Somerville until his death in 1934. Just after Ponoka became a town in 1904 many other young Doctors just out of Medical School arrived on the scene, opened their first practises, and stayed for a few years. Here are only a few of the countless milestones of the extremely active medical history and facilities in our community from 1902 and into the 1980s.
• Dr. Melvin Graham arrived in Ponoka in 1912 directly from London, served four years in Alix, and then opened his medical and eye clinic at his residence on Donald Avenue (51st). In 1922 he and his wife Evelyn moved to their new home two doors west, from where they raised their family and operated his always busy clinic, which included all sorts of treatment as well as occasional ‘kitchen table surgery’ on most days and nights until his death in 1962.
• Dr. S.J.N. Byers came to Ponoka from Rimbey in 1936 and opened a practise on Chipman Avenue, in which he worked until his retirement in 1945 and then turned the clinic over to his son Dr. J.N.C. Byers, who had just returned from military service overseas. His first office was in the theatre building, which was expanded to the Lux building, where he served with Dr. J.M. Cowan and his son Jack until the practise was closed in 1966. It was also during this extremely busy time that the recovery period for countless local patients was completed at make-shift nursing homes in local residences.
• In 1945 Dr. Rex Younge began his medical practise in the Royal Hotel and then later moved to the Segerstrom Building on 50th Street where he was joined by Dr. A.J. Elliott. Following the death of Dr. Younge in 1953 Dr. Elliott was joined by Dr. A. Barry Backus and Dr. Winston O. Backus from England. Likely one of the biggest and most important milestones for the medical treatment and care of thousands of Ponoka Town and County residents came in 1946 with the opening of the first Ponoka General Hospital, which by 1963 had expanded to a 50-bed facility with a staff of 60 and a compliment of eight doctors. In the 20 year span after the medical centre was built some of the other doctors who served the public from the facility and at the clinic included Dr. Robert Chesney, Dr. Nis Schmidt, Drs. Roger and Marie Brault, Dr. Brendan Bunting, Dr. Pat McMillan, and many others.
• Our first ultra-modern medical arts building was opened in 1955 at 5104-51st Avenue, and also included a medical laboratory and space for a dental and optometry facility upstairs under the direction of Dr. Don McCrimmon. The original medical centre staff of Drs. Elliott and Backus was joined in 1957 by Dr. Des D. Chesney, by Dr. S. Armand Weaver in 1964, and later by Drs. I.C.K. Tough and J. Spencer. The extremely busy new clinic as well was also faithfully served by a congenial and skilled staff of seven nurses and four clerical and secretarial personnel. In 1963 the medical centre also established, in conjunction with the Provincial Mental Hospital, a first of a kind service in Canada which included our local resident physicians and surgeons caring for the physically ill at the P.M.H. As countless other professional clinics were set up in the community to serve the growing urban and rural population, the Wetoka Health was also added to serve the special needs of infants and adults as well organizing the annual community immunization programs.
From those humble beginnings over 115 years ago and along the way our community medical services, personnel, and structures have changed a great deal, including the addition of a new hospital and clinic, excellent care centres and community professional services, and an ever changing cast of physicians, who are all assisted by an ongoing skilled staff of nurses and support personnel in all areas. Thank goodness that through it all many generations of young and old alike can all be very thankful that the longstanding tradition of excellent quality medical treatment, services, care, and understanding has never changed.