Preserving the Story: Dr. Mellow

Writing Sample: MEMOIRS

The following comes from a portrait of Dr. Frank Mellow, a family physician practicing in Uxbridge, Ontario, Canada from 1912 to the mid-1950s. Dr. Mellow is a fascinating subject because he was far ahead of his time in many of his approaches to the practice of medicine. Linda Revie prepared these Memoirs at the request of Dr. Mellow’s granddaughter Elizabeth Mellow. While the Memoirs are based on the Mellow family papers, family recollections and on Linda’s independent research, they have been written up in a personalized, literary way, and the narrative voice belongs to Elizabeth who is telling the story to her daughter Laura.

from

Memoirs of an Ontario V.O.N.

“Chapter 2: Dr. Mellow”

There are many rooms in this story about Uxbridge, my parents and grandparents, me. There are many pictures I could draw too of all those memories but for now let’s open the door to my Grandpa—who’d be your Great-Grandpa—Dr. Frank Earnest Mellow, and put him in the frame.

While we’re at it, let’s go back to the winter of 1948, the winter of my birth, when Grandpa Mellow was so very sick. He tended to be brought low with seasonal affective disorder—back then they referred to it as ennui. Whatever you call it, he was depressed, tired, flat-lining. He took his daily tonics but every winter seemed consumed by the ennui. Sometimes he almost suffocated with it, coming down with bouts of bronchitis or pneumonia. Before I tell you more about Dr. Frank Mellow’s health, and his medical practice, I must say that his wife Daisy Mellow kept a diary and she wrote in it every day. Like Queen Victoria’s voluminous works, you could go back in time and learn June of the year so-and-so was wet and rainy and the mean temperature was 100 degrees. You could read about where so-and-so went for Christmas, and who so-and-so had over for Easter tea.

A few years ago, when I was sorting out the house to get it ready for the Realtor, I heard a voice say: “Elizabeth! Over here, pick me!” I looked and saw nothing but the spines of Grandma Daisy’s diaries. The voice continued with—”that one will do fine.” I looked again, noticed one of the bound titles seemed to vibrate, and glow, so I selected that journal, opened the cover and lo and behold a veil was lifted: the year read 1948. Flipping to February, finding the entry dated one week before my birth, Grandma had written: “I see him fading from me every day and I am very sad.”

But the world still needed our loving devout good Doc Mellow. So, my early birth, the real reason I was a month premature, was to help my Grandfather turn the corner. He needed me; I represented something happy to come back for. As a little aside, I know exactly how he felt, darling Laura. Your arrival in 1987 made me feel really warm and fuzzy inside. My own little daughter! What a blessing! Life couldn’t have been better. Yet also knowing that way back in 1948, my birth meant something, caused a turnaround in somebody’s life, in my mind, reading what my Grandmother had written in her diary February 1948, made me think: “wow.”

Here’s a photograph of my Grandfather sitting behind a horse in a buggy. Frank Mellow is the long lean string bean of a guy, hands on the reins. When he first moved to Uxbridge, that main street was a dirt road, not much wider than a single lane. You can see in the photo how narrow it was.

 

There was no town hospital, few schools. Everything was rural, country. Grandpa had been inspired by his older brother Sam to go into medicine. Both were Queen’s University men, top of their graduating classes. After Grandpa Frank received his degree, he started practicing medicine as a junior associate up in Saintfield, north of Port Perry. That was before he met my Grandmother. He practiced in Saintfield for ten years, then moved to Uxbridge. That would be in 1912. I know for a fact that soon after Grandpa Mellow arrived in town, he married his sweetheart Daisy Isabel Campion Carmichael. She had been born in Manilla but when Grandpa met her she was a Port Perry girl, having just graduated from Whitby Ladies College. One of the first things they did after they moved to Uxbridge was prepare the back lot—a huge property that ran the entire length down to Bascom Street—by making it into a formal rose garden, complete with a spouting fountain. The grass came later, then the tedious layering and maintenance that came with creating a beautiful bowling green. I can still have a poignant memory of it when I smell freshly cut grass on a hot morning. They eventually sold the bowling green to the town for a dollar with the intent that both Grandpa and Grandma could play their favorite game of lawn bowling right behind the house.

When Grandpa first took up residency in Uxbridge, there were daily trains bringing mail but no house telephones. Just as everyone did, Doc Mellow had to go to the Post Office, English fashion, to send or receive telegrams. I was told during the early years of his practice he learned to sleep with one eye open, as did the horse. That faithful steed, who so many times and for so many years powered the ambulance for his most desperate cases. Even in this photo you can see the animal has a true sense of duty. I imagine that horse legging it through town as if it had the Olympic torch in its mouth. Eventually, a car replaced the horse and buggy, and Grandpa got a home telephone. It was installed in the medical office. A wall mounted-contraption that had to be hand-cranked to get it going, you’d talk into it and go through dispatch before being patched in. That was a shared line, of course, and if you were to overhear personal information on the phone, then mum was supposed to be the word. However, there have always been those amongst us who have not been able to zip it. In those circumstances, it was proper to keep the gossip to a minimum.

Remember, those party lines were in existence during the heady pre-war days—and here I’m talking about pre-WWII. Back then, babies were born at home. There was no Cottage Hospital staffed by district nurses. If the family could afford medical attention, they paid for Grandpa. They paid for his medicines, his instruments, his forceps and his ether. When he arrived for the delivery, they’d have already arranged newspapers and cotton-covered pads on the bed. In the kitchen, the husband or neighbour would be boiling up string, boiling up dressings, boiling up a pudding dish for delivery of the “placenta pie.”

During the mother’s 10-day confinement, my Grandfather would call each day to make sure she was bathed, to make sure the baby was okay. All this attention came at a price. Depending on the decade, he would charge between $3 and $5 for each baby, and he always asked for payment right after the delivery. Over his half-century career in medicine, Dr. Mellow helped more than 1,200 babies into the world, with no maternal deaths.

xxx

Laura, you’ve probably heard all the family stories about how exercise was always important to your Great-Grandpa Mellow. He was such a creature of routine; he’d be up early in the morning swinging his exercise clubs around his head. He looked like a gyroscope when he really got going! Despite the seasonal ennui, he was a fit very well put together gentleman. Always in a jacket with creased pants and shirt and tie, like in the photograph. Even in the garden, he’d be turning his roses with his tie on. The man standing beside the buggy and the man on the bench seat are both unidentified. The mayor and the clergyman? The scene is glossed by an entry in Grandmother’s diary from the year 1914—somehow the voice directed me to find the exact page to match this exact photo. That diary entry written in Grandmother’s careful hand reads: “Frank drove out to tend to a TB case. Came back to the clinic in a very grim frame of mind.” The TB case referred to might be Mr. Edes, a local dairy farmer. Although Mr. Edes had contacted Incipient Tuberculosis—the only type thought to be curable—and was shipped off to the sanatorium at once, he’d died a few months later, and Grandmother’s remark in her diary that the only thing missing from the large funeral procession was Mr. Edes himself struck an odd chord with me.

Shortly after that TB case Grandfather Mellow purchased his electrostatic generator. Such a device would have been extremely useful for diagnosing Mr. Ede’s disease. All the medical literature expounds upon how this machine had been essential in Canadian sanatoria during WWI and should have also been employed at recruiting stations because many soldiers died of TB before they even shipped overseas. In fact, the statistics tell us that between 1914 and 1918, more Canadians from all walks of life died of TB than were killed in combat.

Image from Museum of Health Care, Kingston, Ontario http://www.museumofhealthcare.ca/

Dr. Mellow’s electrostatic generator was supposed to cure all forms of Tuberculosis. It may look to us like a torture machine, but it was exciting for him to take a patient upstairs into the room, where the Barnardo maid Dorothy stood at the ready in an oversized white lab coat, waiting to crank the wheel. That would start the disks rotating against brushes; that would conduct the energy along the rods; that would create the ozone bolt, a blue sizzle between two copper balls. When running smoothly, the machine was able to produce a high voltage, low amperage electrical charge. Applying electrodes directly on the patient’s skin, Grandpa would treat their gout, rheumatoid arthritis, acne, epilepsy. Or he’d use the fluoroscope to examine them, aiming unshielded x-rays at their bodies, viewing their radiated skeletons on a small screen.

It must have been quite painful; even so, they kept coming back for more.

I know I do it a disservice by calling it a torture machine, ghost buster, monster. It was always a bizarre-looking contraption, resembling something one might come across in a mad scientist’s laboratory. It came equipped with some beastly-looking things hanging off hooks around the sides that would be shoved into different body orifices to seal, to cauterize, to radiate. It even had an apparatus that looked like a bird cage—I believe this gear was swung around and fastened over a manic person’s head. Then, static electricity was applied through the wire headpiece. Seemingly, this was therapeutic, calming; a mental soothing like tiny little fingers going over the scalp.

The machine took up permanent residence in a 2nd floor sitting room adjoining my Great-Grandmother’s bedroom. This was my Grandma Daisy’s mother, and as such, Grandpa’s Mother-in-Law. In his formal manner, Grandpa always referred to his Mother-in-Law as “Mrs. Carmichael.” Word was that Grandpa Mellow didn’t get along with Mrs. Carmichael very well. She’d be sitting in bed in a little cotton bonnet having her tea with one of her shrugs around her shoulders and he’d be marching patients back and forth through her bedroom. She didn’t like that and put up with it for too long but always nodded graciously as they came and went for treatment on the machine.

Long after Grandpa had stopped using the electrostatic generator in his practice, I remember getting Dad to crank the monster up. We would pretend we were engineers operating a piece of death-destroying machinery. Mother would be running around in the kitchen, yelling—”you’re going to be sterile!” The smell of ozone permeating everywhere, that dry burnt smell, got me even more hyped up. Well, it turns out Mom was wrong about something. I didn’t become sterile—darling daughter; you’re a testament to that! But I do regret one thing about this machine. I regret not having asked more questions about it, and about the house that had been its home for a long century.

While Grandpa’s electrostatic generating machine may have been touted as the miracle cure for many early twentieth-century diseases, unfortunately it was not able to halt TB or stop the Spanish ‘Flu. After 1918, entire households, entire towns came down with that ‘Flu. At the height of the epidemic, where there was often no one well enough to boil a pot for dinner, Grandmother would help prepare and distribute broth, eggs, and milk for Grandfather’s ill patients. A decade later, during the lean mean Depression, she’d provide the same for any hobo who came to the back door willing to chop wood or work around the house for his tucker.

xxx

Now seeing that photograph of Grandpa in the buggy, and seeing that street again takes me right back to the house.

I can almost see myself walking up the porch steps, walking toward the golden door. When I’d open the front door and come in, it would smell like lemon oil and brasso, an overlay of cooking and my Grandmother’s attar of roses. She took great pride in the house. Along with Dorothy, she kept on top of the cleaning like it was Buckingham palace. There was a schedule and it was followed without fail, Monday to Saturday.

Sunday was Church, reading, car rides, sledding, swimming, hiking. Fun entertainment;  nothing resembling work. They were devout Methodists, and when in Uxbridge we attended Church with Grandpa and Grandma every Sunday morning. It was an experience I never forgot, and something that added greatly to my memories of Grandpa. He was very strong in his faith. We’d come back from Sunday Service and he was still full of the hymns. While my Grandmother fussed around in the drawing room, rearranging the flowers and the figurines, getting the tea ready, getting the maid organized, he’d step me up on his shiny laced-up brogues and march me around the living room to Glory Glory Hallelujah, or Onward, Christian Soldiers.

He was my Grandpa and was very proud of me. From the get-go, he encouraged me to explore everything in his medical collection. He always seemed to be calmly guiding me, making me feel I could accomplish something in medicine. My Dad did too, but the early roots were down deeper with Grandpa.

Laura, you probably already understand this because in a funny kind of way you were closer to your grandparents than you were to us, your Mom and Dad. When my Grandfather was alive, that was the case for me too. Grandpa Mellow didn’t play games or get down on the floor; instead, he’d encourage me to parallel him. It was all very balanced, very cerebral. I didn’t respond to fussing and often I tended to do my own thing anyway, but from day one, he cultivated a different kind of energy in me by letting me live an imaginative, ideal life as we set about our daily tasks of reading, discussing, thinking.

To allow me to figure out the world all by myself he let me at his library. It was a musty place, that library, darkly panelled and lined with specially bound volumes from Queen’s University. The medical monsters in his books fascinated me. There were some pretty grotesque babies. I was encouraged to explore and talk about them. He never said “oh, put that away Elizabeth, it’s not for your eyes dear.” Grandmother would object though, say, “Frank do you see what she’s looking at?” And he’d answer: “yes.” There were books about medical heroes—Norman Bethune, Frederick Banting—and books about Florence Nightingale too. I was particularly interested in her. So I’d read about Florence Nightingale and learn about poultice-making, then ask him: “what’s an applied fomentation?” and he’d explain it to me. “Where do you put this?”—I’d want to know of a dressing or a thermometer, and he’d demonstrate it for me. But the best part of hanging out with Grandpa was being allowed to play with his medicinal weighing scale. I’d open the little drawer and see inside the apothecaries’ measures. Each round coin, each square coin was my found treasure trove. There were books with similar coin-shaped measures so I’d consult them, consult Grandpa. He showed me how a 3ss scruple on one scale was used to weigh things by the ounce. Add a 3fs drachma to bring it up to a half dram. When I got a bit older, he’d let me help in the dispensary, trusting me to measure out the numbered grains onto the scale in full avoirdupois weight; to pour out the weighted particles into the big marble pestle; to grind up the fine powders with a club-shaped mortar.

His instruction wasn’t just limited to medicine. Out in the garden, he’d give me a trowel, tell me, “this is the way to plant this.” Back in the kitchen, he’d say: “here, eat this.” Mouth agape, I’d be introduced to all manner of sprigs and sprouts from the garden. His favourite though was green onion sandwiches on white bread with ketchup. He had a great sense of humour, but was quiet. Even his laugh was modest. It’s funny, I know he wore a hearing aid, but often it wasn’t turned up. He was an important man about town and not just because he was a dedicated family doctor. Did you know that your Great-Grandfather helped fund the building of the new High School, the Methodist Church Hall and the Church Annex? Throughout the 51 years of his residence in Uxbridge, he was very active in town affairs, helping to found the Lakeridge Cottage Hospital too. It finally opened in 1958, after decades of planning. Ironically, Dr. Frank Ernest Mellow ended up dying in the hospital he helped build. That was in April 1963—a sad day for one and all.