There is a long tradition of putting pen to paper among doctors caught up in the novelty of serving Inuit populations in the Arctic. The results cover a considerable expanse of Arctic history: Gilberg’s 1948 book Eskimo Doctor; Moody’s 1955 account of his time in Chesterfield Inlet, titled with colonial intrigue Arctic Doctor: An Account of Strange Adventures among the Eskimo; Gareth’s Dew Line Doctor, published in 1962 by the aptly named “The Adventurers Club”; and the recently released Medical Adventures in the Arctic by Lianne Lacroix (2010), apparently self-published. Reading between the lines of these works is sometimes more informative than taking in a text at face value. They merit close study in and of themselves, saying more about Qallunaat culture, claims to expertise, colonial and post-colonial enterprise, the nature of scientific (medical) practice, and interactions with the “Other” than about the events and experiences they recall.
Burgess adds to this tradition. What makes these texts—and Burgess’ contribution in particular—difficult to review, is that, while the act of writing is often born of good intentions, this genre has seldom been critically examined in relation to our own culture and the personalities to which it gives rise. We simply see skilled physicians whose commitment to their Inuit patients was considerable. This genre goes “off track,” however, because the details of medical practice do not make for engaging popular prose. Burgess, consequently, fronts his very interesting discussion of the cardiovascular health of Inuit with chapters that detail his own childhood, his education, and his considerable accomplishments, including the presidency of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. He gained his northern experience through the Division of Cardiology at McGill General Hospital, serving the Baffin region of what is now Nunavut and Nunavik, Arctic Quebec, from 1973 until his retirement in 2003. Burgess spent some time travelling in and out of the Arctic to meet his patients’ needs. Having lost his wife to cancer, Burgess puts “pen to paper” to recount not merely his career as a heart surgeon but also his life as a student, physician, and backpacker in Auyuittuq Park.
The first eight chapters deal with his career. They frame the following five chapters on cardiology and the Inuit. What is offered, apart from biographical information, is a thin attempt at outlining the history of Inuit health care. Hard to read because of a consistent “subject, verb, object” sentence structure, the text reflects the benevolent sensibilities of a generation of often (but not always) well-intentioned individuals who were willing to go beyond their comfort zone to meet Inuit health-care needs. The last few chapters deal with hiking in Auyuittuq Park and the death of his wife, a story that speaks to thousands who have struggled with similar experiences. Undoubtedly, Dr. Burgess is best when talking about Inuit cardiovascular problems, abnormalities, and treatment. We might have deserved an entire book on the subject.
If criticism is due, it is likely best directed at McGill-Queens University Press and the editors of this series. It is not at all clear what The Footprint Series is designed to accomplish. It appears, in some ways, to be a form of “vanity press”; an opportunity to offer Qallunaat a chance to address their mortality by putting pen to paper to recount their careers and associations. The result is titles like The Greater Glory: Thirty-seven Years with the Jesuits by Stephen Casey. I thought (was hoping) that demand for this genre died with the 1950s. McGill-Queen’s seems to have done an exceptionally unfortunate job of resurrecting it.
Doctor to the North has its share of faux pas, the result of trying to do justice to subjects (like the worn debate about the origins of the term “Eskimo”) in little more than paragraphs sprinkled here and there. The “persistence of the Inuit primitive way of life” is noted. “The National Land Claims Agreement” (sic) of 1993 (p. 147) suggests that not only a different sensibility might have been brought to the job of editing, but also more attention to editing—period. John Burgess’ picture of a distinguished career, and his obvious and admirable sensibilities and commitments, need a better frame, one the publisher apparently could not provide.
- GILBERG, Aage, 1948 Eskimo Doctor, New York, Norton.
- HOWARD, Gareth, 1962 Dew Line Doctor, London, The Adventurers Club.
- LACROIX, Lianne, 2010 Medical Adventures in the Arctic, Kelona, Webb Publishing.
- MOODY, Joseph Palmer, 1955 Arctic Doctor: An Account of Strange Adventures among the Eskimos, London, Odhams Press Ltd.