This Week in History


Wilfred Grenfell - A Generous Soul

For the week of Monday October 6, 2003

On October 9, 1940, medical missionary Wilfred Grenfell passed away. Through his work and generosity, this remarkable man did much to improve social and medical services along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Wilfred T. Grenfell
© Library and Archives Canada / C-022876

Born in England on February 28, 1865, Wilfred Grenfell received his medical degree in 1888. He was already a committed Christian and his spirituality, combined with his passion for medicine, inspired him to accept a position with the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen. In 1889, Grenfell became head of this organization. Its chief aim was to provide medical and religious services to North Sea fishermen in Northwestern Europe.

In 1892, the organization sent Dr. Grenfell to Newfoundland and Labrador to investigate the living conditions along the coasts. He found a disturbing situation. The population, mostly made up of fishermen and their families, were in a terrible state. The few thousand residents received only one visit a year from a doctor, and were very poor due to the terms of the trade agreements with the fish merchants. Dr. Grenfell returned to England to raise money to help these people. In 1893, the doctor came back to Battle Harbour, Labrador, to establish a mission, which was soon followed by the region's first hospital. Other missions with hospitals, orphanages, schools and co-operative stores quickly took root in other places along the coasts, and even into eastern Quebec. Since these facilities were expensive, Grenfell used his charming personality to raise funds for the cause. His main support came from the United States, especially after his marriage to Chicago heiress Ann MacClanahan in 1909.

Sir Wilfred Grenfell's orphanage-boarding school. St. Anthony, Nfld.
© Library and Archives Canada / C-023564

In 1912, Dr. Grenfell left the Royal National Mission to found the International Grenfell Association. St. Anthony, one of his Newfoundland missions, became the headquarters of his new organization. In 1920, it welcomed an important partner with the establishment of NONIA, the Newfoundland Outport Nursing and Industrial Association. Unfortunately, his own health began to fail, and he retired in 1927 to Vermont. Dr. Grenfell continued to raise money for the hospitals until his death.

An avid traveller all through his life, he made a last trip to Newfoundland in 1940, where he was welcomed as a hero. He received many prizes and distinctions throughout his life and for his work to improve the living conditions of the seafaring and coastal people, Wilfred Grenfell is recognized as a person of national historic significance.

For further information on NONIA, please see NONIA: A Welcome Addition to the Community!  in the This Week in History archives.

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