Duelling doctors intrigued Nanaimo newspaper readers

All Dr. Cluness could do was "smooth down the pillow of death…"- deceased’s husband.

I t was most unprofessional: two doctors duking it out in print with all of Nanaimo for an audience and the likelihood of humiliation and loss of his practice for the loser. But so it was, in Nanaimo, in December 1881.

It began with a letter to the editor of the Free Press by A. W.

Gamble, M. D. He accused Dr. D.Cluness, coroner and surgeon for the local collieries, of challenging his (Gamble’s) competence in treating the late Mrs. S while she was giving birth to twins.

Gamble chose to go public via the newspaper because, he said, Cluness had refused to see him one-on-one and, "If I were guilty of malpractice in this case and he knew it, it was his duty as a coroner to summon a jury and have the matter properly investigated."

Gamble proposed arbitration by a third physician and that he and Cluness each post a bond of $ 100-$ 500 which would go to the party deemed to have proved his case: "The proposal I think is a very fair one… I want no newspaper warfare[!] in the matter but require of the Dr. a congenial reply, will he accept the proposition or not?" His proposed "bet," as she termed it, drew a response from Margaret Guillion who’d helped nurse Mrs. S for 10 days. At all times, she declared, Gamble’s instructions had been strictly followed, and all the nurses were experienced. She didn’t wish to say more "but any certificate I can sign would not be favorable to Dr. Gamble. I have nothing to say in his favor."

Most damning was a letter from William Sinclair, husband of the deceased who chose to identify himself publicly: "… First may I plainly state that in my opinion had Dr. Gamble allowed me to bring Dr. Cluness in to assist when I wished to do so, my children would not [be] motherless today. This he prevented me from doing by menacing behaviour and by cursing and swearing and running down Dr. Cluness, completely cowing both me and the nurses [whom] he also attempts to blame… for not carrying out his directions.

"… Although I am no doctor, and consequently perhaps not perfectly capable of forming a correct judgment, yet I believe from what the nurses told me, from what I saw myself and from all I can learn, that had Dr. Gamble’s skill been greater and his management better, this great mischief and misfortune to me and my little ones would not have occurred. I think the nurses did all that even experienced nurses could do. I believe Dr. Gamble was deficient both in skill and management."

Dr. Cluness, he said, was only called in after Gamble had given up Mrs. Sinclair for dead. By then it was too late; all Cluness could do was "smooth down the pillow of death…" and try to ameliorate what he and the nurses termed Gamble’s "harsh and cruel treatment".

Sinclair said he’d tried to "ascertain the truth – the immediate cause of death was the presence of putrid matter [placenta] in the uterus up to the ninth day. When I insisted on Dr. Gamble telling me the immediate cause of… death, he said a small piece of such matter, about the size of his thumb nail, had remained and had by absorption poisoned the system. The nurses informed me that large pieces kept coming away up to the ninth day…"

Incredibly, it got worse: Gamble had "wished to God that I and all belonging to me were dead," and threatened to sue Sinclair for his $ 50 fee. Gamble’s proposition to Dr. Cluness, Sinclair thought, was that of "a heartless, unfeeling man…"

It went on, with Dr. Cluness refuting Gamble’s claims in print. Only a week later, the Free Press reported that Dr. Gamble had placed his household goods up for sale, terms cash.

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