January 12, 2021 – 9:30am Geoff Mynett “The Story of Pioneer BC Doctor Horace Wrinch, the author’s grandfather-in-law”- ZOOM

Geoff Mynett, a member of our club and author

GEOFF MYNETT, member of our club since 2003,  grew up in Shrewsbury, England. He qualified in London as a barrister, later requalifying as a barrister and solicitor in British Columbia. After a career in law in Vancouver, he is now retired and pursuing a life-long interest in history and the arts. Research for this significant book on the history of the Skeena River has taken him to archives and libraries in Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria, Hazelton, and Smithers. He has also drawn upon family papers, photographs and contemporaneous sources to tell the story of Horace Wrinch, medical pioneer and largely forgotten progressive reformer in British Columbia.

Geoff first visited Hazelton in 1979 with his wife Alice, Horace Wrinch’s grand-daughter. He became fascinated with the small town, its history and its pioneer doctor. Hazelton was settled by non-indigenous traders in 1871, 15 years before Vancouver was incorporated. One of the most historically rich places in British Columbia, Hazelton was for over forty years the most important town in Northern British Columbia.
Geoff and Alice live in Vancouver and have two sons. He is an artist and a passionate believer in the importance of knowing our histories.


Horace Cooper Wrinch was a man of many skills and a major contributor to Northern BC. At the time of his death, the Vancouver Sun described him as “the most influential and best-liked man that ever blessed this district with his presence.” Over the course of his lifetime, Horace became widely respected as a doctor and surgeon, hospital administrator, medical missionary, Methodist minister, magistrate, farmer, community leader, and politician.

In 1880, Horace left his hometown of Kirby in Essex, England at the young age of 14. The farmer’s boy headed over to Quebec, where he spent twenty years developing his skills in the medical field. He also met his wife, Alice Breckon, a teacher, nurse, and a fellow missionary. The newlyweds dreamt of heading over to China as medical missionaries, but the Boxer Rebellion at the time led to a change in plans. In 1990, the couple headed west to Hazelton, BC, which had a great need for a doctor at the time.

Hazelton is located at the junction of the Bulkley and Skeena Rivers. At the time, the area was only accessible by horse or by boat. Supplies such as food, alcohol, and medical equipment also needed to be brought up on the river, which was impossible to navigate six months out of the year due to the dangerous winter conditions. The community consisted of the early settlers and the Gitxsan First Nations Reserve. As through much of the province, the relationship between the settlers and the Indigenous peoples of the land was complex, with tensions continuing to this day.

Horace and Alice moved into a small house in the nearby town of Kispioux, where other Methodists had settled. For two years, Horace performed surgeries in the patients’ homes, bringing along a door to serve as an operating table. In 1904, they moved to Hazelton and built their first home. Half of their new home would serve as a 22-bed hospital, the only hospital in the Northern Interior region of BC at the time. Horace served many roles. He was a doctor serving both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members, the hospital’s medical superintendent and surgeon, and the medical health officer for the entire district tasked with managing measles and flu outbreaks. As an ordained minister, he held Methodist services in the hospital until 1912. Horace also dabbled in mining, headed the Red Cross in the region during the war, bought two drug stores, and built furniture.

In 1905, Horace opened a nurses’ training school. Nurses would train at the hospital for three years before moving on to other locations. They qualified 3-4 nurses every year right up until the Great Depression, which led to the school’s closure. For 30 years, he ran a hospital farm to feed his family and the hospital’s patients and staff throughout the winter months when they couldn’t receive deliveries. He experimented with new grains and ran a reasonably-sized canning operation, which put patients to work while awaiting treatment. Horace also introduced private insurance to Hazelton. Folks would pay $1/month in exchange for free medical treatment. For every dollar, the hospital received 50 cents. This scheme was a significant source of income to keep the hospital running.

In October 1918, the Spanish Flu arrived on the Skeena River. At the time, Horace was the only doctor between Terrace and Vanderhoof. As the public health officer, he swiftly sprang into action and immediately closed all gathering locations in the region, including bars, schools, and churches. He set aside beds for flu patients and established overflow hospitals, including a repurposed railway car. Of the 250 flu cases among the nonindigenous community, Horace only lost seven patients.Horace’s quick decisions resulted in a low mortality rate in the region. Unfortunately, 43 of the 3000 in the Gitxsan community also died due to the Spanish Flu.

In 1918, Horace was involved in the establishment of the BC Hospital Association. He was the Association’s second president. Over his two terms, he focused on hospital financing and public health insurance. Board members were putting up personal money to keep the hospitals running at the time. In the 1920s, the Liberal Party asked him to run as a provincial candidate. He agreed with the condition that he would not be a party politician. He served two terms as an MLA, voting freely. He was a progressive politician and during his time supported the establishment and completion of UBC, the product marking legislation, and the protection of the kingfisher. Horace was a key player in setting BC up as a leader in public health care. He proposed legislation to support public health care three times. Unfortunately, his efforts were unsuccessful due to the opposition from doctors. Doctors were concerned about the lack of administrative machinery available and didn’t want the government setting their fees. The legislation wouldn’t pass until after WWII.

Sadly, Alice passed away from cancer in 1923. There was a tremendous outpouring of sympathy from the community, and the grief-stricken First Nations came and played music for her procession. Horace stayed in Hazelton for another 13 years, before retiring from the hospital and moving to Toronto. He remarried and moved back west to Vancouver as an Elder at the Canadian Memorial Church. He died in Vancouver in 1939. After his death, the Hazelton hospital was renamed Wrinch Memorial Hospital and continues to bear his name to this day.

Questions and Answers:

Question from Jay Powell: I’m an anthropological linguist, and I was at UBC for 30 years and worked with Native groups. The Gitxsan and the Kispioux and others in the Terrace area. I have a question relating to the Spanish Flu. In your reading of the information that you’ve collected, was there ever a vaccine for the Spanish Flu? I mean, the idea of vaccines and the technology had been around already for 60 or 70 years. How come we never hear of the development of the vaccine? And how did the virus stop without a vaccine?

Answer: Horace heard of a vaccine, and he asked the authorities in Victoria to get hold of some of it for him, but they said that it didn’t work, “There’s no such thing.” He spoke to a friend of his, Dr. Ferrier, who was working in a laboratory in Winnipeg, and said, “Look, I’ve heard of this vaccine you’re working on, can you bring me some?” And so, Dr. Ferrier made a special trip with the vaccine to Hazleton and Horace, Dr. Wrinch, used it and allegedly, reportedly, no one got sick after he started using it. Now, I’ve always wondered about that because I had always thought, and I tried to check up on this, that vaccines for the flu weren’t really invented until the 1930s. So, I’m not sure what he was doing or what he was using. People have thought he was using the vaccine and gave him credit for getting it in an almost skunkworks operation behind the backs of the BC medical authorities. So, I’m not quite sure what he was using, but people thought it worked and gave him credit for it. So, one of the joys and problems and adventures in doing research is the rabbit holes one can go down, and that was one rabbit hole that I would have loved to have gone down. But in fact, didn’t. To go back and investigate the history of vaccines and what, in fact, the laboratory in Winnipeg was doing, and whether or not he used it.

I have heard that the American Medical authorities were also investigating vaccines at that time, but I haven’t got a definite answer as to whether or not one was definitely working. Perhaps there are other doctors in the audience who could not shed some more light on this.


Question from Hugh Lindsay: Did the federal government pay the cost of medical service for First Nations when Wrinch was in Hazelton?

Answer: Yes, they did, but, I mentioned earlier, he had several different medical jobs. One was as the doctor of the community, and one was as the medical superintendent. The BC government paid $2/day for First Nations who were treated in the hospital. And the federal government also paid some of that cost as well. The federal government also gave him contracts to provide medical services to the Indigenous people in most of the reserves in the area. But, before that, he was a private practice, so those who could pay did pay. He collected and was given a large number of artifacts. So, I think many of the First Nations people who couldn’t pay in cash paid either in food or in some other form of a gift. So, the federal government did pay, yes.


Question from Jack Zaleski: I enjoyed the talk very much. I was wondering if you could expand a little bit. I was interested to know more about Horace’s family life and his social life. What was it like living up in Hazleton in these times? How did he make any money? Life sounded very hard to me? I was wondering if you can tell us a bit more about that life, please? 

Answer: Yeah, I think life was hard on the frontier. And this was a frontier town. He had a family; he had his wife, who he married when he was thirty. He had five children. That was certainly a hard life for her, it was getting to an elderly age to be having your first child in your thirties, certainly in those years. He was, I think, a fairly Victorian parent – somewhat distant. He was fairly brusque and fairly authoritarian, as many Victorian parents were. He was a lifelong temperance advocate, so certainly no drinking in the house. He didn’t approve of cards until he was persuaded that Bridge was an intellectual game and not a game of chance. He was fairly strict on Sabbath observance. So, I think he was very strong in his religion, which I think would have been hard for his children growing up in the 1910s and 1920s. Food – I mentioned that he had a farm – so, they had to provide their own food. He didn’t buy a car until 1916. Getting around was by horseback. He was very proud of his first car in 1916 – a Ford. He was by all accounts a fast and reckless driver, and it became a bit of a byword, almost a joke, him being a fast driver. There were sly comments in the newspapers about near misses he had and times he’d run the car over a bank. He only had one accident and broke a few ribs.


Question from Bill Hooker: What utilities if any were available in in Kispiox, etc. e.g. electricity?

Answer: Hazelton didn’t get electricity until the 1920s. He had a hospital to run, and he needed an x-ray badly by 1912-14. So, the only way to get an x-ray was to get electricity for the hospital so, he had big fundraising drives in 1913 to establish hospitals and power generation. And with that, he could establish and obtain an x-ray, which was installed in the beginning of mid-1914, the start of the war. Until then, the hospital heating was by wood stove and lighting was run on shale gas, which is a settling gas. When he set up the hospital, he bought or acquired an acetylene gas plant, which I believe was water and carbide, mixing into carbine gas, and this was piped into the hospital to provide lighting. I think the advantage was that it was non-flammable. Now I might be corrected on that by someone who knows more science. Perhaps Otto could do that. Because fire was a very, very big problem, and there are many, many fires in Hazelton, and fire was a really big problem, and he was terrified of the hospital catching fire. The nurses lived on the top of the hospital, and he was very frightened that not only that the hospital would burn on behalf of the patients, but the nurses as well. So, the hospital was, in fact, replaced in 1930 and again in 1977. The new hospital was opened by one of his sons, Major General Arthur Wrinch, who was head of the Canadian Red Cross at the time.


Question from Chris Finch. Could you enlarge on relationships with First Nations people in Hazleton? 

Answer: Yes, this is a huge topic, and I’m not by any means an expert on this. There are many experts, and many people have written books on this. It’s also a very sensitive topic. So it’s a question I was expecting. Like everywhere else in the province, Hazelton in 1900 was deeply racialized. On the one side, you had the settler community with the power and a deep sense of superiority and entitlement. On the other hand, you had the Gitxsan community, who were seeing their own society fragmented and changing dramatically by the new society. I can’t speak for the Gitxsan, but I would think that if I had been in their position, I would have felt deep concern at the disappearance of the old ways and the coming onto my land by the new people. Before 1900, both sides coexisted reasonably well. Both sides saw the need to coexist. There were some problems. They dealt with them. The Gitxsan were still in the majority, but after 1900, which is when Horace arrived, things started changing, not in their favour. The first policemen arrived in Hazleton in 1900. Horace arrived, and even though he was very sympathetic to the First Nations, he was part of the colonial enterprise as a magistrate, a doctor, and a missionary. The governments arrived with new fishery laws. Settlers arrived to take over more of their land. Fences arrived. Surveyors arrived. The railway arrived. There were deep frustrations building up in the period between 1900-1914, and even though there were royal commissions sent up to try and redress the situation, it was only a band-aid solution. So, where was Horace in all this? Well, on a macro position, on a macro analysis, from the days and culture, he was part of the colonial enterprise. He was a missionary. He was a magistrate, and he was a doctor—all which ways affected First Nations culture. There was certainly competition between the Halayts, or the Shamans, of the First Nations culture who saw their power being eroded both in terms of medicine and in terms of their spiritual power in the community. The First Nations had a deep and rich medical culture, and inevitably, this was eroded by modern medicine. So, yes, there was competition between the Shamans, or Halayts, and Horace.

On the other hand, he was very sympathetic to the First Nations people. He sympathized deeply with how their traditional ways of being upset, especially the fishing restrictions, which affected the First Nations deeply. He opened his own home to First Nations patients. In the one year that he was doing this, of the 31 patients he had living in his own home with him, 17 were First Nations. One First Nations Elder said of him, “he treated us like people.” So, his sympathy was well known for them. He abhorred the use of alcohol and the abuse of alcohol by the First Nations community and also the selling of it to them by the white settlers who he felt should have been leading better lives. When his wife died, there was a great outpouring of sympathy from the First Nations people. And when he himself died, as I mentioned, there was grief in the community for him. So, it was a mixed position he had to navigate this situation, which was fraught and sensitive. And 90 years later, the land claims of the Gitxsan and the Wet’suwet’en across the river came to a head in the famous Delgamuukw decision. Although it’s always called the Delgamuukw decision, it was of two nations, the Gitxsan Nation and the Wet’suwet’en Nation across the Bulkley River, that were behind that. I hope that answers your question to some extent. It’s a huge topic, and I’m certainly not an expert on it. I’m trying to give a balanced picture.


Question from Bill hooker: Your next book? 

Answer: I’m so glad you asked that. I have another book coming out in March of this year. So, this morning, I have on my desk the final typeset copy, and I’m going through checking it item by item. And this relates to the Simon Gunanoot story.  Now, I think that many people who have lived in the North would know who Simon Gunanoot was. Many people perhaps don’t. Simon Gunanoot was a very well-respected Gitxan merchant and a hunter and trapper. He was well-liked by the whole community. In 1906, he went into a bar in a place called Two Mile and got into a fight after he had some alcohol with a local thug – I’ll call him a thug – called Alex McIntosh. They had a fight, Gunanoot right away, so he could come back to “fix” him. Early the next morning, Alex McIntosh’s body was found dead on the trail. And a little while after that, another dead body was found. The police suspected Simon Gunanoot of being a murderer, and Gunanoot had fled into the wilderness, becoming one of BC’s most famous outlaws. He was out in the wilderness for 13 years. In 1919, he gave himself up to the police. He was tried for murder and acquitted in Vancouver. McIntosh’s body was found on Horace’s own land, and he was the first man on the scene. The police tried very, very hard to catch him, partly because they made a racial matter and made it a test of colonial authority. Who’s in charge? They sent party after party after party to try and catch him. In 1909, when everyone thought that they had given up, they hired two Pinkertons, operatives from Seattle disguised as trappers and miners to go out pretending to be miners to search for him. These two Pinkerton men spent almost a year up in the Hazelton district, and sent back reports once or twice a week to Seattle. Their reports were sent on to the chief of police in Victoria, and these reports have lain in the BC archives for over a hundred years. I think, probably, very few people have seen them. I’ve been through them very, very carefully, and I’ve based a book on their reports of that hunt, and it is really a detailed look at about nine months of the search in Hazelton based on their reports. And so, it is a retelling of the story, the focus on that one year of the hunt. And as I said, it’s coming out in March, so I encourage everyone to go and buy a copy.


Question from Hugh Chaun: I was fascinated to hear that he had planned to go to China as a missionary, and I wonder whether he ever visited China thereafter? Secondly, how did the Indigenous First Nations people accept his therapeutic advice on different things?

Answer: No, he never went to China. He never went back to England again either. So he was very much a BC man for most of the rest of his life. There were a lot of missions to China in the 1890s, and certainly that was high on his list of places to go, and I think perhaps if there hadn’t then been the Boxer Rebellion, he might have carried on and then his whole life would have been different.

Coming to the flu, I think at one point, I noticed the mortality rate for Victoria was 3.5%, and the mortality rate for Vancouver was 10%. About 4,000 people died in British Columbia of the Spanish Flu, 1,000 of them in Vancouver. I did a little reading on that. I think the difference, and this is perhaps of interest to us today, is that the Medical Officer of Health in Victoria was far quicker off-the-mark to close places down. He was some time ahead of Vancouver in closing meeting places. This clearly had an effect on the spread of the contagion and the mortality rate. So, I think that’s a lesson when you’re looking at what Australia and New Zealand have done and comparing that with what the United States has done.

The First Nations, I couldn’t find out whether it was a natural common sense that led them to stay clear of the white community when the flu first came up, or whether it was the strong recommendation from Dr. Wrinch, but they did retreat in their communities. There were 14 communities, some very, very small. Seven of them were never touched by it. And of the 43 people who died, seven were in Hazelton, in the Hazleton First Nation Community called Gitanmaax and several were in Kisipioux. So, I think it was keeping to themselves and going back to their old ways that kept them as safe as they could. They were sensible people. Intelligent people. I think they knew as well as anyone when there’s contagion around you keep to yourself. So, I think it’s that natural common sense combined with the advice that kept them safe.


Questions from Jack Zaleski: Are you an artist? And is that a self-portrait behind you? 

Answer: Yes, and no. I do enjoy drawing and painting, and that’s just someone I’m working on at the moment.


Question from Bill Hooker: Was there a residential school connection in Hazelton and if so, what was his position as a Methodist minister to that? 

Answer: Thank God, there was no residential school in Hazleton. The closest Methodist residential schools were on the coast. As for his position, I suspect he would be horrified at the abuse that took place in residential schools. On the other hand, he would have seen that education was an important way for First Nations to deal with modern world. There had been First Nations schools in Hazleton since the 1880s. So the schools were not a new thing, but happily, that wasn’t a residential school. There were some motions to have an industrial school in Hazleton to teach the trades essentially, but that never came to anything. So, I think that Horace wasn’t involved in schools. I know that one of the doctors who was in Hazelton in 1916 before he went on to China, he was going to go to China, Dr. Sega, said that, “Dr. Wrinch was very upset at how the fine First Nations names for places in the area were being superseded by settler names. So the name from the mountain that is known as Roche de Boules, the French name from the French voyageurs who arrived in Hazelton in 1830’s, name is Stegyawden. Hazelton is Gitxsan is Gitanmaax. And the Bulkley River was Wet’sinkwha, and Horace was very sad that these beautiful names were disappearing. So I think he had a sympathy for and appreciation for First Nation’s culture. I think that he would not have liked to have seen that submerged into the terrible things that happened to First Nations cultures in the 1920s. Because it was in the 1920s when things really got bad. This is when Duncan Campbell Scott who was the head of the Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa really ramped up the policy of assimilation, the enforcing the potlatch laws, and enforcing the residential schools. So I think even though he would have approved of the education, he would not have approved of the submergence of First Nations culture.





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