The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
On the list of colourful characters in the history of the area now known as Centre Wellington, the name of Dr. Abraham Groves is near the top.
As a physician, businessman, and politician he cut a wide swath.
Today Dr. Groves is best remembered as the founder of the hospital which now bears his name. This institution opened its doors 114 years ago. Planning for the facility occupied Dr. Groves for most of 1901 when he wasn’t busy with his practice, his flour mill, or his electrical plant.
At the turn of the century the only hospitals in the area were the two in Guelph: Guelph General in the city itself, and St. Joseph’s, then in Guelph Township. Guelph General had a policy of allowing only Guelph doctors to practice there. By 1900 Dr. Groves had tempered his extreme Protestantism, and regularly performed surgery at St. Joseph’s.
The situation was inconvenient for Fergus and Elora doctors, and impossible for those farther away from Guelph. Dr. Groves decided that Fergus should have a hospital, and preferably, one under his control. He had plans in hand in early May 1901 when he approached Fergus council for assistance.
Dr. Groves’ original concept was for a one-storey hospital, 150 by 75 feet, which he planned to build on land owned by Fergus on the west side of Breadalbane Street, just north of the railway spur line at St. Patrick. The doctor wanted a tax exemption on the building, and free water from springs owned by the town.
Several citizens promised financial support, and Dr. Groves solicited further aid, particularly from societies and churches. The hospital, though, would be owned, and largely financed, by himself.
Dr. Groves’ objectives were complex. He wanted a hospital closer than Guelph, and he also desired facilities in which to practice increasingly complex medical procedures. He could see that hospitals were becoming a key part of the medical system. He may have believed that it was a good business venture. Finally, his son was enrolling in medical school. A hospital would provide him with a good career opportunity.
Fergus council promised to co-operate, and next Dr. Groves approached the county. To everyone’s surprise, he was turned down. The decision was controversial: Wellington County at the time was providing an annual subsidy to Guelph General, even though county doctors could not practice there. No one was more surprised than Dr. Groves. He had outlined the economics of hospitals to county council. He stated that Guelph General cost 91 cents per patient per day, and believed he could do the job for much less.
Undeterred, Dr. Groves decided to press on. He had to scale down his plans. He abandoned his plans for a single storey building and purchased the residence of Fergus merchant Henry Michie, which sat on a five-acre property on the east side of Gowrie Street. The mansion, known as Myrtlebank and constructed in 1876, cost the doctor $3,200.
Dr. Groves hired Taylor Brothers of Guelph as the general contractors for the project, which involved major renovations and additions to the structure, at a cost of about $12,000. He had steam heating installed, along with electric light in every room, and call buttons for each bed. To meet the costs he took out a mortgage with Canada Permanent for $4,000.
The sod turning ceremony took place on Aug. 12, 1901, with Reeve J.J. Craig in charge. Many societies and several churches began fundraising drives to furnish the wards and rooms with beds and other equipment. Among them were the Methodist Epworth League, the Oddfellows, the United Workmen, the Masons, the Foresters, and the Catholic Church women.
One room was furnished by donations from the registered nurses in the Fergus area. Undoubtedly, some would be seeking employment, but others would continue in private practice. It is unfortunate that so little is known about these nurses who practised more than 90 years ago. How many were there? What was the extent of their practice and their relationships with doctors? Did some practise as midwives? All we know is that they strongly supported a hospital in Fergus.
At the turn of the century hospitals did not have a good name. The public believed that they were unhealthy and filled with contagious diseases, and that only the poor and helpless were treated in them. Anyone who could afford to do so hired a private nurse for convalescence, or relied on family members.
In the fall of 1901 Dr. Groves began a publicity campaign for his hospital, stressing that his would be clean and healthy, and that modern medicine required such facilities. He sought Royal patronage for the hospital, and received it in November 1901 from Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII, who had recently ascended to the throne. Dr. Groves boasted that his was the first hospital in the Empire to be so recognized, and that the name would be the Royal Alexandra Hospital.
Work on the building was completed in the first week of the new year, and Dr. Groves scheduled a gala opening ceremony for Jan. 12, 1902. The Fergus Brass Band and Perry’s Orchestra, supplemented by various vocalists, provided continuous music through the afternoon and evening, and visitors enjoyed a buffet lunch after touring the building. Some 500 people signed the register, but the crowd was so large that several hundred could not get near the book.
As originally laid out, the ground floor contained a children’s ward, a men’s ward, six private rooms, the X-ray and operating rooms; offices for reception, the medical superintendent and head nurse; and storage, drug and bath rooms in the rear. Upstairs were the women’s ward, five private rooms, two offices and a room for student nurses. In the attic were kitchen and dining facilities. An elevator connected all floors with the basement.
The ceremony received wide publicity, both through the press and by word of mouth. The hospital opened for patients two days later, and five student nurses began their training.
For the first few months patients were scarce, and Dr. Groves faced high operating costs. To increase usage he began to advertise the hospital in April. He stressed that the hospital was open to anyone, and any doctor could come in to attend a patient.
The patient load eventually increased, and in 1905 overcrowding prompted Dr. Groves to add a full third floor to the hospital, along with glassed-in verandas on the second and third floor. Cleanliness and sterilization had always been fetishes of the doctor, and he also believed in good nutrition and fresh air to restore health.
No information seems to have survived on the financial details of the hospital. It is unlikely that it was a profitable business for the Dr. Groves. He had to remortgage the venture in 1908 for $6,000, and it was not debt-free until 1913. Still, it is unusual to see so many donations going to a private business venture.
For the first time, Dr. Groves had an X-ray machine (the most powerful in Canada, he boasted). He used it continually. In April 1902 he sent a story to the Toronto papers describing his cure of a terminal cancer case with a month of daily exposures. Dr. Groves believed X-rays killed germs, and he clung to this idea for the rest of his career. In his memoirs, published in 1934, he states that X-rays help cure pneumonia.
After operating the hospital for 30 years, Dr. Groves sold the hospital to Fergus for $1 in 1932. He was 85 years old, and planned to slow down a little. It is regrettable that his memoirs contain virtually nothing about his hospital and its management, concentrating instead on some of his medical cases.
During the time he wrote his memoirs, the government was promoting the standardization and consolidation of hospitals to reduce costs. Dr. Groves argued strongly in favour of community hospitals. Today, his comments so many years ago still have relevance: “A hospital should be allowed to develop in such a way as would best meet the requirements of its own environment. If the Ontario hospitals are to be governed, regulated or standardized, it must be done wholly by themselves. This proposition is so self-evident that I would not suppose it would be required to be re-affirmed.”
*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Sept. 10, 1997.