Fergus man carried bullet in his brain after a shooting in 1925

About a quarter after 1pm on the afternoon of Jan. 28, 1925, Fergus resident Bob Brown was walking from his barn to his house on St. David Street North. With him were a son and his brother-in-law, a man named Whitelaw. As they neared the house, Whitelaw heard a gunshot, and a moment later, Bob Brown dropped to the ground.

He stooped over to examine Brown, and at once noticed a wound on the back of his head. He had, apparently, been hit by a stray shot from someone out of sight who was either target practicing or shooting at some game.

Whitelaw rushed into action at once, and loaded Brown into his car for a fast trip to the Royal Alexandra Hospital. Luckily, Dr. Abraham Groves was in the building. The doctor immediately took the patient to the x-ray room. The exposures revealed that the bullet had indeed entered the back of Brown’s neck, and was still lodged in his head.

Dr. Groves took Brown directly from the x-ray room to the operating room. He believed that quick action was needed to save Brown’s life. The doctor removed some portions of shattered bone, and pieces of the bullet, which had partially disintegrated on impact. The main portion of the bullet, though, was still in one piece, and was lodged in the middle of Brown’s brain.

Dr. Groves concluded that it was the wisest course to leave the bullet where it was, since he would likely cause significant brain damage if he tried to remove it. He could perform a second operation should that be necessary, but for the present he decided to leave it alone. Dr. Groves considered the wound to be serious, and he had fears that Brown might not recover at all.

The incident seemed to be a freak accident. By coincidence Brown happened to be in the path of a stray bullet that hit him directly in the back of the head. Despite the publicity, no one came forward to either confess that they had fired a 22-calibre rifle, or to identify the trigger man.

Over the next few weeks Brown made a miraculous recovery. He seemed to suffer no major damage to his brain or his mental processes. The accident had been a fluke, and the recovery seemed to fall into the same category. Even Dr. Groves was surprised. He took a number of x-ray pictures of Brown’s head before discharging him from hospital at the end of February, following about four weeks of hospitalization.

Dr. Groves was an early convert to the miracles made possible by the x-ray machine, and he believed that the machines could have a therapeutic use in stimulating the growth of healthy new cells. He had been using x-rays for a quarter century, and like most doctors of that time, he was initially unaware of the dangers of radiation.

As the potential of overexposure became better known, Dr. Groves replaced his equipment several times, installing x-ray cameras that used lower and more predictable levels of radiation. Though recognizing the dangers of overexposure, he was convinced that the benefits far outweighed the risks, and he stuck to his belief that x-rays were a miracle of modern medicine, with both diagnostic and therapeutic applications.

In 1925 Dr. Groves was a seasoned medical man. He had been practicing since 1870, and had lived through and witnessed the development of modern medicine. Still, he could not contain his fascination with unusual cases and seemingly miraculous recoveries. Bob Brown was one of those. He took dozens of x-rays of his patient and handed them to anyone who showed interest. One day he dropped in at the News Record newspaper office to show and explain the pictures to his good friend, publisher J.C. Templin.

He showed Templin where the bullet had entered Brown’s head. It had just grazed the skull at the back of the head, entering the soft tissue, and then had slipped through the gap between the two hemispheres of the brain, on a path that was slightly upwards. The bullet had brushed against both hemispheres without injuring either, and became lodged between them. The doctor told Templin that it would be impossible to remove the bullet, but it was in a place that rendered it harmless.

Patient confidentiality never figured largely in the approach of Dr. Groves to the practice of medicine. This case was no different. Whether Bob Brown ever had objections to being put on display is not recorded, but within a couple of weeks, with his x-rays on view at the newspaper office, publicity had turned him into something of a local celebrity.

Whether the Brown case influenced his decision is not known, but a short time later, in the first week of April 1925, Dr. Groves had a new set of x-ray equipment installed at Royal Alexandra Hospital. On April 3 the doctor invited J.C. Templin to look at it as the installer was finishing his work. That technician, in an interview with Templin, expressed his astonishment that such a small hospital would be installing such expensive, top-of-the-line equipment.

The new apparatus had the x-ray tube placed under the patient, who was on a motorized bed that could be moved to various positions, from standing vertical to lying flat. The doctor could view the image on a fluoroscope above or in front of the patient. The operator, who was a Miss Cox at this time, could operate the machine easily with switches.

The new machine permitted the organs of the body to be seen moving, while shutters prevented the rays from reaching portions of the body that were not part of the examination.

Dr. Groves explained to Templin that the machine was most useful in locating breaks in bones and in determining the exact position and size of metal objects in the body. He also planned to use the machine to cure corns, bunions, and even acne. Such therapeutic use of the x-ray had been common a couple of decades earlier, but had fallen out of use. Unlike most of his profession, Dr. Groves continued to believe in the machines and their apparent ability to produce cures, in addition to their use as a diagnostic tool.

As well as the fluoroscope, the new machine had a more traditional x-ray tube that could take photographs. While Templin was at the hospital to look at the new machine, Bob Brown dropped in at the special invitation of Dr. Groves.

The miracle patient demonstrated how useful the fluoroscope device was for determining the location and size of the bullet in his head. Brown also agreed to a few more regular x-ray pictures using the new machine, which produced clearer images than its predecessor.

The x-ray machines used by Dr. Groves produced massive doses of radiation compared to modern machines. Nevertheless, he took only minimal precautions to protect himself from the rays. Amazingly, he seems to have suffered no damage or injury.

Bob Brown seems to have survived the dozens of x-ray shots he received. He joined a long list of Dr. Abraham Groves’ patients who recovered from serious injury and ailments when their initial prospects were dismal. Dr. Groves had knowledge, skill, and ability, but no one can discount the stream of good luck that accompanied his lengthy and distinguished career.


Stephen Thorning