Hailed as the first institution in Canada to be established by a provincial government for treatment of tuberculosis, the Nova Scotia Sanatorium – the ”San” – opened just outside Kentville in 1904.
Yet there was a precedent that has practically been forgotten. Years earlier, around 1899, Dr. George Erastus DeWitt (1842-1924) opened the Wolfville Highlands Sanatorium just above the town. A practising physician, DeWitt was Wolfville’s medical health officer and was active in town politics, serving as a councillor and mayor.
Dr. DeWitt was a pioneer in the field of preventive medicine, especially in the treatment of tuberculosis. But except for brief mentions in a couple of history books, he has never been formally recognised for this work. His Wolfville Highlands Sanatorium for the treatment of “incipient consumption,” was established in a period when relatively little was known about the disease. As mentioned, DeWitt opened his clinic several years before the Nova Scotia Sanatorium and his “cure,” consisting mainly of rest, diet and fresh air was adopted by the San.
DeWitt’s Sanatorium was the first tubercular hospital in Nova Scotia and it also can be regarded as either the first or second clinic in Canada opened solely for the treatment of this disease. At the time, only one other tubercular clinic was believed to be operational in Canada when the Highlands Clinic opened in Wolfville and only one or two similar clinics existed in all of North America.
Dr. DeWitt was one of the early Kings County physicians singled out as worthy of honourable mention by medical historian Dr. Allan Marble in a recent lecture. Before Dr. Marble’s talk at the Kings County Museum, I had never heard of Dr. DeWitt or his pioneer clinic. As confirmed by Marble in his presentation, DeWitt not only played a pioneering role in the treatment of tuberculosis. As Wolfville’s medical health officer and inspector for some 24 years, DeWitt also pioneered preventive medicine in the town, introducing sanitation by-laws and health regulations that were almost unheard of at the time.
Dr. DeWitt’s pioneering efforts to combat tuberculosis started when his daughter Carrie was stricken by it. Seeking a cure, DeWitt accompanied his daughter to a tuberculosis clinic in Ontario, remaining long enough to observe the care given to patients. DeWitt returned home and set up a clinic along the same lines on what is now Skyway drive just off Highland Avenue. Here his daughter and others “took the cure” – a good diet, rest in fresh air year round, with exercise and medication.
As for the actual day to day operation of the Sanatorium, Dr. Marble noted that he “has a considerable amount of personal information on Dr. DeWitt but very sketchy information on his Sanatorium.” To date, Dr. Marble has been unsuccessful in even finding a photograph of the Sanatorium.
Also, the information out there on the date the Sanatorium opened – either 1898 or 1899 – and the length of time it operated – five to six years – is contradictory. What we do know for sure is that DeWitt’s clinic closed just before or shortly after the Nova Scotia Sanatorium became operational.
Dr. George E. De Witt was born in Bridgetown, N.S., was a graduate in medicine at Harvard University, and before opening his practice in Wolfville in 1892, served for six years as an assistant city medical officer in Halifax. DeWitt practiced in Wolfville from 1892 to 1924.