Is there a doctor in the house? - Glimpses of the Past with Karen Webster
Some people have the ability to pack a multitude of experiences and achievements into their lifetimes and one such person was William James Milne (W. J.). He was born in Streetsville, Ontario to Robert and Sarah (Erwin) Milne in 1868. This small family resided for a while in Palmerston before settling in Blyth in 1880 at which time they purchased the Commercial Hotel, now the Blyth Inn, located on the northeast corner of Queen and Dinsley Streets.
W. J. finished his elementary education in Blyth, and then went on to Clinton Collegiate Institute before attending Trinity College at the University of Toronto and Queen’s University in Kingston to complete his degrees in medicine. He graduated in May of 1888 and returned to Blyth to open his practice there.
He married Helen (Ellen) McKinnon, daughter of D. B. McKinnon on June 27, 1894. To this union were born two daughters, Mary and Sarah.
In the first years of his practice, Dr. Milne drove some good horses and had several different kinds of conveyances such as a buggy and a Stanhope, a high, two-wheeled “gig”. Later, horses were only used in the winter and the doctor liked an automobile that could “hit a good clip”. In fact, in 1907, Dr. Milne was the second person in Blyth, after Isaac Brown, to purchase a car. Dr. Milne kept busy after obtaining the car, giving rides to any interested person. By 1915, he had a black Ford Runabout that was a gas-operated 2.5 HP, two-seater vehicle.
In 1903, Dr. Milne replaced his first office with a modern brick building that was located north of the Commercial Hotel on Queen Street. It was 60 feet long and two storeys high containing a doctor’s office, an operating room and a drug store named White City Drug Store. In addition to medicines and over-the-counter remedies, the drug store also sold mirrors, manicure sets, fine china and cut glass, perfumes, etc. In addition to his other profession, he was also an optician. The upper floor of his building contained Milne Hall which was used through the years for meetings by many groups such The Canadian Order of Foresters, The Ancient Order of United Workmen (AOUW), the Women’s Sewing Circle, the Red Cross Society in WW l and the Maple Leaf Sewing Circle. Eventually this hall was turned into an apartment. In 2023, this building houses “Finds and Consigns”.
Not long had he returned to Blyth to start a medical practice than he also undertook a life of public service. He was elected to the school board in 1889. Next, he became a village councillor and was the village reeve for 17 years.
In 1917, he became the Warden of Huron County. In that era, wardens were chosen according to their political alliance. Because 1917 was the year for a Liberal warden, Dr. Milne and a Seaforth man were nominated with Milne winning out. In recognition of his term as warden, the village gifted him with a gold-headed cane which, later, his family donated to the North Huron Museum.
In 1913, the Blyth Standard newspaper printed a very complimentary profile in which he was characterized as “a man who believes in doing things and what he undertakes is carried to a successful issue with determination … his splendid platform oratory has charm as he has an excellent delivery.”
Dr. Milne was a fellow of the Trinity Medical College, a member of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, as well as being the coroner for Huron County, medical officer for Huron and past-president of the Huron County Medical Association.
Melda McEnroy, who resided in Blyth from 1918 until 1927 and then later retired there, shared some of her memories in A Village Portrait, which was published in 1977, Blyth’s centennial year. The following is a paraphrase of those memories. “On Saturday nights in the summer, stores would remain open until 11 p.m. or later. Whole families would linger and visit. By 6:30 p.m., Dr. Milne would be sitting in front of his drug store. He would chew tobacco and have a word of two with passersby. He was interested in all his patients and non-patients too. He was Blyth’s oracle. Words of wisdom, only, fell from his lips. Not only did he tell mothers how to look after their babies, but he was also able to give advice to gardeners and farmers. He was a specialist in municipal affairs and was responsible for many of Blyth’s streets being paved.”
Dr. Milne’s medical career spanned 49 years beginning when he graduated from medical school before his 21st birthday until a few months before his death in November of 1936. He was survived by his wife, Helen, and daughters Mary, Blyth and Sarah Cole of Toronto. The funeral service was held at Blyth United Church and he was buried in Blyth Union Cemetery.
Although the good doctor has been gone for decades, some of his legacy lives on.
A few of Dr. Milne’s records still exist and in them are chronicled the births of some of the hundreds of babies that he brought into this world. Many family names that still call Blyth and area home are included on those pages: Radford, Armstrong, Howatt, Scott, Glousher, Toll, Hallahan and Shortreed, to name a few.
In addition, his name is found in the detail at the top of the structure that he had built in 1903.