A debut biographical novel examines the life of Canadian physician and surgeon Thomas Robert Ross, who practiced medicine in Alberta during the first half of the 20th century.
Webster attempts to realize the one unfulfilled ambition of Ross—to write his own history as a frontier doctor during a time marked simultaneously by rapid change in his chosen profession and the western expansion of Canada. For the basic story, the author has relied on the copious notes left behind by Ross and his wife, Jennie, including fragments of case histories, personal letters, and oral histories repeated by family, friends, and their descendants. From these, she weaves her own imaginative narrative showcasing Ross, a medical pioneer who leaves the busy cities in Quebec and Ontario behind for the southwestern plains of the new Alberta province, bringing with him his wife and two young sons. Through the invented conversations and musings of Ross and Jennie, Webster builds two complex primary characters. Ross, son of a Hudson Bay Company trader, possesses a temperament that’s suited to life on the vast empty expanses of mountains and, later, prairies. He is an exuberant, restless loner. In counterpoint is Jennie, a former school teacher, who suffers from more fragile health and bouts of depression. She finds the frequent moves of their first 20 years in Alberta, until they finally settle in the prairie town of Drumheller, challenging both physically and emotionally. But the background against which their personal saga plays turns out to be the most compelling aspect of this volume: the technological changes that move Ross from horseback to automobiles, two world wars that deliver home the wounded and the maimed, and the gradual introduction of medical breakthroughs that mark the first half of the century. These include the development of insulin for treating diabetes, the early use of vaccines, the improvements in operating-room disinfection (which Ross instituted in Coleman), and his work to improve techniques in bone surgery. Constant mining injuries (these are coal towns) also inspire Ross to revolutionize on-site treatment by creating first-aid brigades trained to stabilize miners before they make the arduous journey to the hospital.
A well-organized, smoothly presented blend of fact and fiction about a pioneering doctor.