Patrolling the medical margins: The hospital ship Strathcona III and community relocation in northern Newfoundland and Labrador, 1949-1974

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University of New Brunswick


This dissertation explores the history of the Strathcona III (1964-1974), the last hospital ship built for the International Grenfell Association (IGA). The IGA was a philanthropic health care provider that operated in northern Newfoundland and Labrador between 1893 and 1981. To make its services more accessible to rural-remote fishing communities, the IGA developed a decentralized system of small hospitals, nursing stations and hospital ships. By revisiting a wide range of clinician autobiographies and other forms of life writing, analyzing clinical case records, and applying a spatial history analysis to the Strathcona III’s activities, this study shows that the ship was primarily built in response to the continuing high incidence of tuberculosis. Ultimately, this work links the Strathcona III’s health services to contemporaneous community relocation programs that sought to move people from small fishing communities to larger ‘growth centres.’ Faced with overcrowded housing, where tuberculosis flourished, and high unemployment, many relocated people returned to their old homes each summer to make a living from the fishery, leading the IGA to construct a new hospital ship that could accompany them. This is not to say that the intentions of the state could not be coopted or subverted. While the Strathcona III was designed to conduct mass x-ray surveys for tuberculosis, coastal peoples were also able to access a range of other medical services. The ship provided a vital support to fishing peoples whose way of life was considered ‘backwards’ in a modern industrial economy. By continuing to fish from summer stations local people were able, at least indirectly, to influence IGA policy and address their particular needs. Additionally, applying a circumpolar, historical framework to these activities connects the IGA to international trends. The emerging historiography of global health and the rise of ‘big medicine’ shows how economic ‘modernization’ programs, military buildups, and marine-based public health surveys in Canada were also occurring at the same time in many other parts of the circumpolar North Atlantic. Thus, interconnected projects of tuberculosis control and community relocation in northern Newfoundland and Labrador can be seen as parts of a larger set of global projects.