Wellington County blood donor clinics began in 1950

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.


Periodically, this newspaper publishes thank-you notices to those who participate in and volunteer at blood donor clinics in our local communities. For the past couple of years, Canadian Blood Services has managed the clinics, but for a half-century before that, the Canadian Red Cross conducted them.

Over the years, Wellington County donors have participated in the program to a larger extent than most other Canadians.

The Red Cross became involved in the collection of blood during the Second World War, and there were several clinics conducted in Wellington during those years. The organization was no stranger here: the Red Cross had been active during the First World War in several of Wellington’s communities, raising money and collecting supplies for those injured during the conflict.

The Canadian Red Cross dates back to 1896, and the international organization to 1863, when it was founded by Henri Dunant, a native of Switzerland. The Red Cross flag, with its cross on a field of white, copies that of Switzerland.

The founder of the Canadian organization, Dr. George Ryerson, flew an impromptu Red Cross flag when he was tending to the wounded in 1885, during the second Riel Rebellion. Eleven years later he formally organized the Canadian Red Cross. The first big project was raising assistance for victims of the Spanish-American War in 1899.

The Canadian Red Cross received recognition and sanction from the Canadian government in 1909, with an act of parliament. Recognition from the international organization came in 1927.

The American Red Cross pioneered in the collection of blood for transfusions in 1937. During the war years, both the Canadian and American organizations collected blood to save the lives of soldiers wounded in battle.

New methods for the storage of blood and the extraction of plasma had been developed at McGill University in the late 1930s. Those made long-term storage and transportation feasible.

Dozens of Wellington County residents donated at the wartime clinics, often travelling long distances to do so. That program ceased at the end of the war.

Meanwhile, the demand for blood in hospitals, for transfusions in anemia cases, childbirth and surgery, grew year by year during and after the war. The supply system of that period was an awkward and inefficient one. Potential recipients could persuade friends and relatives to donate for an upcoming operation, or to replace whatever was used during the surgery.

In other cases, patients could purchase blood.

In 1947, the Red Cross developed a plan to collect voluntary donations of blood, and to supply the blood to hospitals as needed – all at no cost to the patient. The Red Cross, working with local committees, would operate clinics in the major centres at regular intervals. The first postwar clinic operated in Vancouver on Feb. 3, 1947. It was hugely successful, and Red Cross officials immediately set out to establish similar clinics across Canada.

The general public immediately embraced the concept. Over the next two years, most of the cities of the Dominion saw their first postwar blood donor clinics.

By 1950, the Red Cross began looking at some of the smaller centres.

Fergus had supported the wartime clinics more than other towns its size. Rev. J.R. Greig of St. Andrews Church in Fergus strongly supported the idea, and he found several others in town who wished to have a local clinic. He hosted several meetings at the manse in the summer of 1950, some with representatives of the Red Cross present. By Labour Day that year, a formal committee was at work, headed by chairman J.D. Walkey, proprietor of Monkland Mills, and lawyer P.J. Morris as secretary-treasurer. Other members included Mrs. A.A.P. Menzies, Eric White, Mrs. J.M. Russell, and D.B. Beatty.

Groves Hospital welcomed the concept of a local clinic, and offered full support.

The committee planned to hold clinics twice annually, with the first later that fall. Mrs. Menzies agreed to organize and help recruit the volunteers required. Red Cross officials scheduled the first Fergus blood donor clinic for Nov. 29, 1950. J.D. Walkey’s committee arranged for the use of the large gymnasium in Melville Church.

During October, volunteers conducted a door-to-door canvas in Fergus, plus portions of Nichol and West Garafraxa Townships, to explain the blood donor concept, and to ask people to sign donor cards. Two men wanted to be the first to sign up: Bert Miller had donated 38 times since he first visited a wartime clinic in 1940. Reg Manley followed on his heels, with 34 donations to date.

Three Red Cross trucks from Hamilton arrived in Fergus to set up the clinic, directed by an official known only as Mrs. Knapp. She had been on the road for more than two years, setting up these first clinics and instructing the local volunteers. When the clinic opened on Wednesday morning, Nov. 29, the response overwhelmed everyone. By the time the clinic closed for the noon hour, 139 donors had passed through. At one point, the Red Cross took blood donations at the rate of 70 per hour.

In the afternoon, another 120 donors passed through the doors, and 93 more in the evening. Local volunteers passed out drinks and refreshments, and assisted Red Cross workers wherever necessary. Much of the help came from members of the Fergus and area Women’s Institutes and from the Fergus Legion. Both organizations had also helped with the door-to-door canvas in October.

The day’s total, 352 pints, would be impressive by today’s standards. In 1950, Fergus had only one-third the population it had in 2003.

Mrs. Knapp believed that Fergus had set a Canadian record for per capita blood donations. Red Cross officials from Montreal and Toronto, who were in town to observe the local effort and initially skeptical about holding a clinic in such a small place, were visibly impressed.

After the clinic, Red Cross officials stated much of the donated blood would be kept on hand at Groves Hospital, which then was using blood, on average, five times per week.

The Red Cross co-operated with the local volunteers for the second blood donor clinic on Apr. 20, 1951. Results, with 297 donors, did not quite equal the first one. Nevertheless, it was an impressive total, and had been reduced by the fact that about 15 Fergus residents went to Hamilton to an emergency clinic less than two weeks earlier.

Blood clinics have operated regularly in Fergus from 1950 until the present. Harriston, Palmerston and Mount Forest also joined the list. Regulations and procedures have changed over the years, but the basic principles behind the system are constant.

The hundreds of donors and volunteers who have been associated with these clinics should be proud of their contributions to the welfare of the community.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Sept. 26, 2003.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015