Dr. Hugh Reid McDonald: One of the Last of the Real Country Doctors

Dr. McDonald was born in 1891 and died in 1974 at the age of 83. Before he came to Kilbride he had a busy, colourful life. He was raised on a dairy farm near Newton in Perth County and attended Listowel High School where he graduated at age 16.

Like a lot of young men his age, the West beckoned and he went to Regina, Sask., where he attended the Normal School.

He first taught at a little school house on the prairie at Maple Creek, later at Moose Jaw and then went north to a school near Prince Albert.

A cousin suggested they take a medical course so they went to McGill University in Montreal in 1915. At that time teaching school was a stepping stone to higher education. Their studies were interrupted by World War 1 and after studying all day they put in long hours at night at drill.

Private McDonald joined the #3 Canadian General Hospital Medic Unit and on May 6, 1915 sailed from Montreal. Their ship was on the high seas at the same time the passenger ship “Luisitania” was torpedoed. On the trip from Southampton to France they were warned not to show even a spark from a cigarette as the channel was alive with submarines.

They first set up a field hospital in tents, then they were moved to the Jesuit College in Boulogne. A red cross of bricks was built to indicate to the enemy in the air that it was a medical unit but Dr. McDonald said it just served as a good target and they were bombed mercilessly.

When casualties were brought in, orders were given to roll the convalescents off their beds to the floor to make room for more serious cases. The #3 medical unit treated 100,000 casualties. During this period the young Dr. McDonald was honoured for meritorious service and he was raised to the rank of sergeant.

John McCrae served in the same unit as Dr. McDonald and he was one of the first to read “In Flander’s Fields”. In 1918 McCrae died of pneumonia and the Doctor was present at his burial service in France. This poem did more to bring the United States into the War than the sinking of the Luisitania.

In June 1918 the medical students were called home to finish their studies as Canada was suffering from shortage of doctors. Arriving at Montreal they found that the deadly flu epidemic was killing people off like flies.

Dr. McDonald graduated from McGill with the degree of Dr. of Medicine and Master of Surgery in the class of 1922.

He was influenced in taking his internship in Hamilton General Hospital by a war buddy – Dr. Lapp. There he learned that Dr. Jones serving in the Kilbride area for 35 years was retiring so Dr. McDonald drove out to the little village to inquire if it would be a good place for a young doctor to set up a practice.

Tim Tweedle, the storekeeper, and George Greenlees, a farmer, assured him there was non better.

In July 1923 he moved into rooms rented from Mrs. Philips in the white house behind the store and lived there until his marriage in 1927. Then Dr. and Mrs. McDonald bought the big house opposite Cedar Springs Road from Chap Irwin. He converted a few rooms at the side into a waiting room and offices with a separate entrance.

When the doctor first came to Kilbride there was no electric power in the village. The doctor’s battery powered radio was quite a novelty and some of the residents would come to listen to election results and other news.

His first car was a Ford sedan and when snow made the roads impassable he drove his horse and cutter, often taking a friend or a neighbour with him on his rounds. One such friend was Orlo Coulson. When I went to visit Orlo’s wife Marguerite, she told me these stories.

North of Campbellville the road was blocked with snow so Dr. McDonald, with his black bag and snowshoes, stepped up over the bank of snow and trudged toward a light off in the distance to attend to a child sick with the flu, admonishing Orlo to keep the car warm ‘till he got back.

In those days there was no hospital in Burlington or Milton so patients had to go to Hamilton. The doctor never went to Hamilton without one or more women going with him to shop. Can you imagine?

One time Marguerite and Mrs. McDonald went with the doctor to shop while he was at the hospital. They were to meet him at Park and Park’s Drug Store. Mrs. McDonald dashed up to the A & P to get a loaf of bread and a few slices of bologna, from which she made the doctor some sandwiches to eat on the way home. When Marguerite asked why she did this, she said the office would be full when they got back to Kilbride.

When Orlo and Marguerite’s baby was sick, the doctor drove them in to Hamilton to a specialist and the night little Ivan died, he stayed all night with them.

The McDonalds always had a dog. This time it was an English bull terrier named Spark.

Everyday Spark would go to the Coulsons and Mrs. McDonald would have to go get him and scold him all the way home. One day Spark went to church with Marguerite and sat on the seat beside her. Mrs. McDonald said, “We never had any children but we have a huge family around Kilbride and the doctor brought them all”.

The doctor kept up with the science of medicine as a member of the Hamilton Medical Society. He also joined the Ontario Medical Society and attended conventions all over Canada. He also served 20 years as health officer for the townships of Nelson and Nassagaweya supervising the health students in 20 schools and motels.

When the doctor married the local school teacher, Miss Florence Williamson, the community presented them with a wicker living room suite.

The school children presented Florence with a chime clock. When little Gordon Bennett was reciting the address and came to the line “please accept this small gift” he stopped, looked at the clock and said “Why, I don’t think this is such a small gift.”

At the height of his career the doctor attended surgical operations, called on other patients in seven different hospitals and rest homes, then he would come back and put in a full afternoon and evening with office calls or trips to patients’ homes.

To ease his burden, the doctor joined the Waterdown Golf Club and later the Burlington Golf and Country Club. Then he and his wife would spend several weeks in Florida resting up from the strain of being constantly on call.
He was also a member and staunch supporter of the Masonic Lodge in Campbellville.

Often he would be called out of the Lodge on an emergency and in the winter when the mill hill was icy and the members would hear spinning tires, someone would say, “Come on, boys, the doc’s stuck on the hill,” and two or three would rush out and push him up the hill.

When the doctor got stuck on winter roads, people considered it a duty and a privilege to give him a hand. Realizing this, the doctor would sit in his car and honk the horn and help was always forthcoming.

Dr. and Mrs. McDonald gave many years service to Kilbride United Church, where the doctor served as a steward and Mrs. McDonald played the organ for 28 years.

Book keeping was not one of the doctor’s talents; he would rather look after the sick and let the accounts take care of themselves.

The doctor never turned anyone away who couldn’t pay. When a patient asked how much he owed, the doctor would raise a finger and whisper “just the one” and later, “just the two”.

He would jam bills into his pocket, not taking time to smooth them out or count them. He would take them to the bank, shove them through the wicket and ask to have them counted and deposited to his account.

One day an expectant mother came to the office. There wasn’t time to get her to the hospital so she spent the confinement upstairs in the McDonald’s guest room.

One year in a two week period he brought 16 babies into the world, all at home.

On New Year’s Day in 1945, Dr. and Mrs. McDonald were enjoying dinner with Mae and Lloyd Crawford. A blizzard set in so Dr. McDonald phoned Eric McArthur to watch for his car lights and help him if necessary because the road often filled in at that spot on Twiss Road.

Eric helped him through the worst part and the Dr. and Mrs. McDonald were thankful to get home and not have to go out again, but the stork decided to deliver a precious cargo that night to George and Marion Coulson on Guelph Line. By this time the roads were really blocked so Eric McArthur brought the doctor to Coulson’s by team and sleigh – a two mile trip took almost two hours through the drifted snow.

Ruby Coulson was training to be a nurse and was home for the weekend so she was brought over to help in the delivery.

After a long night the twins were born. Janet first at 9lb., and Jim at 8 lb., a record I think. Later Lillian Thomas from Campbellville came to assist.

Clara Auckland, who lived in Lowville then, was expected to go to the hospital at any time, so she was brought up to Coulson’s, as it was impossible to get to Hamilton and the doctor had beaten a path between Coulson’s and Kilbride. What a houseful that must have been!

Later the roads were opened and Clara did go to Hamilton for the birth of their son, Wayne.

One would wonder at the secret of the doctor’s strength, for he expended himself far beyond the calls of duty. Possibly it was his disposition. He always remained calm in the face of any emergency. Some people would get annoyed because they thought he should have treated their problems more seriously, but he seemed to know instinctively when a quick decision needed to be made and he would make it, saving many a person’s life.

Also the ability to relax – he cherished each restful moment as it if were an hour – doing crossword puzzles or visiting with friends.

After 47 years of service he was given the “Service to Mankind Award” by the Sertoma Club for his untiring service. He has built a legend of the family doctor.

His compassion in times of trouble, his loyalty and devotion to friends and his sincere interest in his patients.
Gordon Sinclair, the radio commentator, once pronounced the doctor as being as much a part of Ontario as the maple tree.

His practice, considered one of the largest in Ontario, has affected the lives of three generations of the same families.

On October 27, 1969, the people of Kilbride had a “Dr. McDonald Day” to show their appreciation and affection for him. Over 5,000 people from as far away as Detroit came to say “thank you”.

Refusing all gifts, a fund was established to furnish a private room at Joseph Brant Hospital and over $4,000 was collected.

This is what I wrote in the Milton Champion in 1974 at the time of his death.

“it has been a sad time for the people of Kilbride and the surrounding districts with the passing of their beloved Dr. McDonald.

For over 50 years the doctor’s frame house has been a focal point in the village. As long as the doctor was “in” a sense of security reigned – especially among the older people who traveled the same road with him.

He will always be remembered with love and affection and sadness for that era that has passed, when a doctor’s fee was secondary to services rendered.”

Contributing Author: Nancy Ramshaw

Source: Kilbride Chronicles, Issue 15, page 26
Transcribed by: Lyndsey Innes