Groves tried unsuccessfully to donate hospital to town in early 1920s

Many people, in Centre Wellington at least, are aware that Groves Memorial Hospital was established as a business venture by Dr. Abraham Groves, and that it became a community-owned hospital in 1935 when the doctor gave the institution to the town of Fergus shortly before his death.


Much less well known is the doctor’s first attempt to donate his hospital.

That ill-fated effort occurred more than a decade earlier, in late 1922 and 1923. The governance of the hospital at that time was an interesting one. Though it was owned by Dr. Groves, a board of directors guided the institution. In 1922 that consisted of George Templin, the chairman, secretary-treasurer L.G. Irons, treasurer Miss Tindale, nursing superintendent Miss Petty, and directors F.A. Black, John Gregson, W.G. Beatty and the resident clergymen of Fergus.

Dr. Groves established the hospital in 1902. Fergus was one of a number of smaller towns that were acquiring hospitals at that time. Most larger centres had acquired hospitals during the late 19th century, and the majority of them were operated as municipal institutions. As well, Roman Catholic nursing orders had established hospitals in many larger towns and cities.

As medicine became more complicated, medical men in smaller towns, such as Dr. Groves, wanted to have hospital facilities operating locally.

Some saw a hospital as a potential additional source of income. Others simply saw a hospital as a part of their practice. As well, some doctors wanted to be the only doctor using a hospital they had established. Others, such as Groves, welcomed all medical men to send their patients to his hospital.

One difficulty to overcome was a general fear that hospitals were dangerous and unhealthy. That stigma gradually disappeared as the understanding of cleanliness and sterile practices became better known.

Dr. Groves had been a pioneer in sterile operating practices and the control of infections. He had less difficulty than most doctors in convincing his patients to go to the hospital when necessary.

Groves’ Hospital, which he named Royal Alexandra in honour of the Queen, the wife of Edward VII, enjoyed popularity among the public after a rocky start.

Whether it was a financial success is another question. Dr. Groves was something of a cheapskate, with the ability to make do and to make resources stretch. As well, he operated a training school for nurses in the hospital. That resulted in some savings in labour costs, but there were also costs involved in training nurses, particularly with a fresh batch of new recruits each year.

Perhaps more important was the fact that he treated many patients who had no ability to pay. That was already the case with a basic medical practice, but the costs associated with a hospital included many out-of-pocket expenses for supplies and salaries, not just the missed fee for himself as in a private medical practice.

During the early 20th century the operation of a hospital required investment in increasingly expensive and complicated equipment.

That involved both the purchase of new instruments, and the hiring of technicians to run them. Groves had a particular fascination with x-ray equipment, which he viewed as both a diagnostic tool and a therapy. He spent a great deal updating his x-ray equipment and hiring men to run it.

By the early 1920s he could see that his hospital would never make him rich. As well, he was no longer a young man, and wished to be relieved of the constant demands associated with running a hospital and nursing school, which was in addition to his vast medical practice.

In late 1922 Dr. Groves approached Fergus council. He offered to turn Royal Alexandra Hospital over to the town at no charge, provided the town council run it to a proper standard.

It appears that Dr. Groves was not forthcoming with financial details of the hospital operation, and the tight-fisted council was consequently very cautious. Groves was as much a businessman as a doctor, with several major investments over the years, including a flour mill and the first Fergus electrical generating system.

Like most small-town entrepreneurs of the time, he was very guarded in revealing anything concerning his own financial affairs. It was hardly surprising that council rejected the offer, not knowing what liabilities they might be acquiring.

The Royal Alexandra Board of directors met on Jan. 15, 1923. At that session Dr. Groves presented a financial statement for the year ending Sept. 30, 1922. It was not a special revelation by the doctor, but simply the financial return he was required to submit each year to the provincial government. It did not indicate the extent of unpaid accounts, nor the costs of any new equipment or facilities that should be added to the facility.

Nevertheless, the statement is a fascinating document, revealing how little the operation of a small hospital cost some 90 years ago.

Total receipts totalled $17,211, of which $13,235 came from direct billing of patients.

The hospital, though a private venture, was already receiving government grants, showing that the trend to view hospitals as a public utility rather than a business venture was already underway. That year the Royal Alexandra received $900 from the provincial government and $1,800 from the county. Those amounts equalled about 16% of the hospital’s income.

Salaries and wages totalled $3,922 for the year. That did not include billings from Dr. Groves and the other doctors using the hospital, but it is still an extraordinarily low figure, showing that a career in health care was not a lucrative one in the 1920s.

Food and beverages outranked salaries at $4,255, while medicine and medical supplies totalled $1,475. Fuel and utilities came to $1,633, and laundry costs to an even $1,000. There seems to be nothing for new or updated equipment. The accounts show a balance on hand of $1,697 at the end of the year.

Though the statement left many questions unanswered, the board considered it “very satisfactory in every way,” and adopted it with little discussion and no questions.

In a slap to Fergus council, the board passed a motion expressing “their unbounded admiration at the generosity of our medical superintendent Dr. A. Groves in offering the Royal Alexandra Hospital with its furnishings, equipment and grounds as a free gift to the village of Fergus, and deeply deprecate the fact that this offer was not accepted by the council and the citizens.”

The board affirmed its membership for another year, with no changes from 1922.

There does not appear to be any groundswell of opinion in favour of the town taking over the hospital. W.G. Beatty did not make any public statements on the subject, though this was one of the occasions when the public did not follow his leadership. As the major employer in Fergus, it is not surprising that he would favour municipal ownership of the hospital: the facility would help him attract and retain workers in Fergus, particularly those with families.

Dr. Groves continued to manage the hospital until 1935, when Fergus council finally agreed to acquire the facility a short time before the death of Dr. Groves. By then the building was badly outdated as a hospital facility, but it laboured on until replaced almost 20 years later.

But that is a story for another time.

Stephen Thorning