By Sue Bryant,
The recent suggestion to build a hospital in Cloverdale would have been music to the ears of Dr. Fred Douglas Sinclair, the first doctor in Surrey and the man who was instrumental in the founding of Surrey Memorial Hospital.
Sinclair was born in the shipbuilding hamlet of St. Stephens, N.B. in 1883. He showed an early interest in the art of medicine and set a course to become a doctor. He obtained a medical degree from McGill University in 1910. During his time studying in Montreal, he became friends with a fellow student named William Shannon.
William was the son of early Surrey settlers, William and Eliza Shannon, and William regaled his classmate of the potential in the growing municipality of Surrey. The municipality was in dire need of a doctor as the only doctor available, Dr. Sutherland, was unable to take care of all community.
Sinclair arrived in Cloverdale in 1911 and soon after Reeve T.J. Sullivan appointed the 28-year-old doctor the medical health officer and coroner for the municipality.
Not long after he arrived in 1912, there was a serious outbreak of diphtheria in the White Rock area. As tourists who frequented the beaches often arrived by train, there was significant risk that the deadly disease could spread to neighbouring communities.
Sinclair believed that the outbreak originated from the refuse and animal waste dumped into the water by commercial fish canneries, and so he went to city council to seek their support in banning the practice.
It was the beginning of his lifelong crusade to improve sanitation practices in the community to improve the health of the residents.
In 1913, he returned to his hometown in New Brunswick to marry Isabell Randall, a Boston-born nurse he had met during his studies. He returned to Surrey with his new bride as well as with his mother, who became well-known in the community as “Mother Sinclair.” They built a stately four-square home on New McLellan Road just east of where the Museum of Surrey can be found today. The new home had a waiting room, doctor’s office and a few beds for the acutely ill patients, as well, in time, room for their three children.
The First World War broke out the following year and Sinclair felt he had to enlist to do his bit overseas. He travelled to France in 1916 with the Canadian Army Medical Corps and promptly fell critically ill. Within the first six months, he contracted enteric fever, paratyphoid, influenza and measles. There would have been little chance of avoiding the contagions in the cramped conditions without the sanitation procedures we take for granted today.
It is no small fortune that Sinclair not only survived but used his personal experiences to improve the cleanliness procedures around him and those he encountered for the rest of his days. He returned to Cloverdale in 1919 with a new found vigour to improve sanitary practices.
“Doc Sinclair” worked tirelessly to ensure he visited the schoolchildren at least once a year to check their throats and eyes, and later, administer vaccinations as soon as they became available. He was always available for medical calls — day or night, at his office or in his patients’ homes. He never sent a bill and was a firm believer that if someone could pay they would. If not, then they needed the help more than he did. It made for some tight times for his family but they made it work.
As a doctor who paid house calls in the early 20th century, Sinclair was often challenged by bad weather.
“Doc Sinclair was the only doctor here at one time. And he worked day and night for his patients,” former Police Chief James Craig recalled. “We’d had some very bad flooding and the whole of Number 10 Highway was flooded. I saw him coming up the centre in his rowboat with his black bag in front. He turned into a house, tied up the rowboat to the veranda and went upstairs to the patient.”
House calls were not uncommon during the time, and often the doctor would rely on his horse and buggy as he found them more reliable in the muddy streets.
In 1946, an outbreak of smallpox occurred in Washington. Sinclair began a mandatory vaccination program and successfully petitioned council and the provincial government to provide grants for the Victorian Order of Nurses to begin working locally and assist him in his medical duties.
Phyllis Bond Payton, Surrey’s first VON nurse, remembered, “Dr. Sinclair was very helpful and appreciative; he was of the best diagnosticians. He’d say, ‘Lets go,’ and I’d have to drop everything and go. But it was worth a million for the experience. He worked like you wouldn’t believe, night and day. He was a great doctor working under a lot of stress and with very poor facilities.”
In 1947, he initiated the Surrey Hospital Society to begin fundraising for a hospital facility located in Surrey, as the closest hospital was Royal Columbian Hospital and it had become extremely overcrowded. In 1948, he proudly turned the first sod on the future site of Surrey Memorial Hospital.
Sadly, he would not live to see the fruits of his labour. On January 28, 1951, he passed away. On the day of his funeral, the businesses of Cloverdale closed in his honour. It was a tough week for local residents, as pioneer and former reeve and magistrate Henry Bose had passed just the week previous.
At his funeral, Rev. Dan McLean noted, “It will be a long time until we understand just how great a man we had among us.” True words even today as his presence lives on in the community.
The Sinclair home was moved from its original location, but can still be viewed today at 17725 58A Avenue in Cloverdale.
Sue Bryant is an oral historian and a member of the Surrey Historical Society. She is also a digital photo restoration artist, genealogist and a volunteer at the Surrey Museum and Surrey Archives.