Poetry, History, and the Grenfell (Medical) Mission

Imagine if the nearest medical care came to you via boat — or dog sled.  Now imagine if you were the practitioner delivering that care, traveling through Labrador, providing medical treatment to remote communities. In June of 1940, Celesta Gerber, still two months shy of her 27th birthday, left her home in Indiana to volunteer as a nurse with the Grenfell Mission. She fell in love with Labrador, with the people she served, and in particular with a young fellow named Gordon Acreman, and ended up staying in Labrador for the rest of her life.

I’ve been working on a cycle of poems about her life.  Ars Medica, the Canadian journal of medical humanities, has just published five of those poems.  You can access them here: http://journals.sfu.ca/arsmedica/index.php/journal/article/download/488/156

Ars Medica Illustration

All of the details in the poems are true. Especially the part about the husky pups.

Nurses played a crucial role in the Grenfell Mission, often working more or less independently of physicians.  And because virtually all of the nurses were women and the physicians were men, their professional independence had implications for what we might assume about “traditional” gender roles.

This use of literature, whether poetry or fiction, to convey historical details about what life was like in another time and place is what I love most about creative writing.  It’s been fascinating to see how this can overlap with the scholarly work I do in medical humanities. There were many other nurses who served with the Grenfell Mission, including Nurse Jupp, who appears in one of the poems.  I’d love to learn, write, and teach about more of them.

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