Dr. Watson Dykes was the only doctor in Duncan for many years. (submitted)

Column T.W. Paterson: When doctors still made house calls

For 15 years Dr. Watson Dykes was Duncan’s leading, sometimes only, obstetrician and surgeon.

For 15 years Dr. Watson Dykes was Duncan’s leading, sometimes only, obstetrician and surgeon.

“Dr. Watson Dykes is located at Dr. Perry’s office and can be found at all hours, day and night.”

Think of it: he was on call all hours, day and night!

This notice in a 1905 Duncan newspaper vividly illustrates that more than a matter of years separates yesteryear’s and today’s medical fraternities.

The mixed blessings of Medicare and Pharmacare and walk-in clinics were unheard-of when Dr. D.G. Perry handed over his practice to Watson Dykes, MD, CM, a “graduate of McGill University and late House Surgeon to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal”.

We don’t know what brought Dykes, aged 26, from Nanaimo to the Cowichan Valley nor why he moved his practice to Vancouver after 15 years of outstanding service to the community. Dozens of old newspaper clippings unearthed by the late researcher Doris Benjamin touch upon some of the highlights of his local career (for much of the time as the only doctor) but leave many questions unanswered.

(Such as why he married fellow Nanaimoite Olive Randle, in May 1908, at 6:15 in the morning. Slipping her in between house calls?)

While returning from such a call in Cobble Hill, he narrowly escaped injury when his car tumbled down an embankment beside Dougan Lake. Dykes claimed the other driver forced him off the road but failed to make it stick in court.

He was trebly blessed in 1914 by the birth of a son and his appointments as medical health inspector for Quamichan, Maple Bay, Somenos and Somenos Station schools, and as medical health officer for South Cowichan. It’s thought that these positions, and those of coroner and justice of the peace, were necessary to supplement his income as a country doctor at a time when many patients paid their bills in material goods instead of scarce cash.

In one year he attended two buggy accidents (one of them fatal), an accidental shooting, two axe-cuttings, at least one broken arm, and administered (too late, alas) to W.J. Bradshaw of Koksilah wo’d been gored by a bull.

Ironically, there was little he could do for wife Olive who, only 34, mother of their infant son and school teacher, succumbed to tuberculosis.

When Doreen Ashburnham, 11, and Tony Farrer, eight, had their heroic encounter with a cougar at Cowichan Lake, it was Dr. Dykes who treated their extensive injuries. When, in the spring of 1918, King’s Daughters Hospital ordered its first X-ray machine, it was Dykes who paid for it, in return for a reduced hospital fee of $2 per day for returned servicemen.

That year he married Mabel Fentiman, formerly of the nursing staff at KD Hospital and, as district medical officer, faced the greatest challenge of his career, the Spanish ’flu epidemic.

Following a well-deserved two month vacation in the sun, he returned to his practice and was made an officer of the Masons. Violations of the Prohibition Act, then in force, presented him with numerous cases as a justice of the peace and posed a moral dilemma for him as a doctor. Although allowed by law to prescribe alcohol for “medical purposes,” Dykes refused to “prostitute his profession” by doing so and likely aroused the ire of many of his patients.

At the end of 1920 Dr. Watson Dykes, MD, CM, FRCS.Ed., LMCC, took down his shingle in Duncan after 15 years of “strenuous and faithful service to the Cowichan district. It is safe to say that no man is better known from one end of the district to the other and that none could be more missed than will Dr. Dykes. In season and out of season, at all hours and in all weathers, he has answered the call. For many years he was the only practitioner here and during the war, the strain on his endurance was a heavy one.”

He returned to the Valley several times over the years but practised in Vancouver for the rest of his career. It was there that he died in 1952, aged 74 years. Dr. Dykes had assisted in the birth of scores of babies, although, at least once, his services had been rejected. The late Bob Dougan recalled how, in October 1913, Dykes was called to attend to his (Bob’s) arrival into the world on the family farm in Cobble Hill.

When Dykes drove up to the Dougan gate he found it locked and he had to clamber over it to reach Mrs. Dougan’s bedside. He later expressed his displeasure to her husband Nathan, saying he’d seen “a couple of what must be some of your brood, Dougan, hiding under the brush close by the gate. Maybe they need a little talking to.”

“Father agreed,” Bob reminisced, “and went out to find the culprits (my brother Bill and sister Edna), who told him they didn’t want another baby in the house. ‘He will do nothing but bawl all the time so we wired up the gate.’

“They thought that Dr. Dykes, finding the gate closed, would take me back to the hospital where they thought I came from.”


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