Dr. Robert George Brett, 1851-1929

Operating room, Dr. Brett Private Hospital, Banff, AB, ca. 1896. Source: Glenbow Museum

Dr. Robert Brett came to Alberta to provide medical care to Canadian Pacific (CPR) workers building the railway through the western provinces, performing surgeries in a boxcar.

He later became the owner of the Brett Sanitarium and Hotel in Banff and the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta.


Boxcar surgery

Dr. Brett was one of several doctors working for the CPR as the railway pushed west. From 1884 to 1885, he managed the CPR’s medical contract in the Rocky and Selkirk mountains. He performed surgeries in a boxcar equipped as an operating room that moved with the CPR crews from Siding 29 (Banff) to Lake Louise and eventually to Golden and Donald in BC.

Rocky Mountain fever (now known to be typhoid fever) was the most common illness in the mountain sections of the railway construction. This fever had a higher frequency and mortality rate in the mountains because construction crews stayed at the same camps longer and the campsites were larger. Blasting accidents and scurvy were also major problems.

Among the 8,000 to 12,000 men working in the Rogers Pass in 1884 to 1885, only four men died – a very low figure and a credit to Dr. Brett’s medical skill.

After the railway was completed in 1885, Dr. Brett became the CPR surgeon for the Bankhead, Canmore and Anthracite mines and ran the small Canmore hospital. In 1889, Dr. Brett became responsible for all CPR medical care from Calgary west to Donald, BC.

Mountain medicine

During his time as a CPR doctor, Dr. Brett had spent time at Siding 29 (later the town of Banff).

Interesting in opening a sanitarium on the site, Dr. Brett analyzed the water from the Sulphur Mountain’s Upper Hot Springs and found that they contained sulfur, iron and salts at a temperature of 43°C. In 1885, Dr. Brett and the CPR applied to the Canadian government for a hot springs lease.

In 1887, his sanatorium was approved, built and opened. The sanatorium had 50 hotel beds, 40 invalid beds, a separate hospital and a dozen tubs and plunges. The facility even had a tennis court, a cricket team captained by Dr. Brett and a barber shop. By 1892, he was performing major abdominal surgery and receiving referrals from as far away as Edmonton.

Get the whole story!

Read the full profile of Dr. Brett in Dr. Robert Lampard's "Alberta's Medical History"
Dr. Robert Brett >> 

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