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The Medical Pooh-Bah of Rupert’s Land

by a descendant of Dr. John Bunn

Manitoba Pageant, September 1960, Volume 6, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

In 1930, when the British Medical Association, during its 98th Annual Meeting in Winnipeg, met for religious service, the preacher was the most Reverened Archbishop Samuel Pritchard Matheson then Archbishop of Rupert’s Land and Primate of all Canada. Born in the Red River Settlement and imbued with its traditions the Archbishop in his sermon related a personal experience: “In May 1861”, he said, “the Red River was in flood and church service was held at Bird’s Hill. While the service was in progress, word was received from Fort Garry of the sudden death of Dr. John Bunn.”

“When the announcement of his demise came”, he continued, “I shall never forget the profoundly pathetic scene. It is engraved upon my memory and I was only a small boy at the time. I had never before seen strong stalwart men convulsed with grief. Many of them slipped quietly away in order to conceal their emotions. It was then that I learned what an earnest and self-denying doctor can mean to his patients.”

John Bunn was born in 1802 at one of the Hudson’s Bay Company posts on Hudson Bay where his father, Thomas Bunn, was employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Before entering that service, Thomas Bunn, co-builder of Drury Lane Theatre, London, had been a member of a company of freeman or a guild in the City of London. Each member, upon the payment of certain fees was entitled to wear a distinctive costume and enjoy particular privileges, such as voting in municipal elections. He married a daughter of John McNab, surgeon, who was in charge of the post where John was born. The interests of the Bunn family were closely bound up with those of the Hudson’s Bay Company for John later entered the service and his sister Isabella, married John Edward Harriot, Chief Trader, 1829, Chief Factor, 1846. It was John Edward Harriot, “a most amiable gentleman”, who entertained Paul Kane the notable artist, at Fort Edmonton (today the city of Edmonton, Alberta) on Christmas Day, 1847.

Dr. John Bunn and family.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

In 1805, Thomas Bunn was transferred to York Factory, the base post to which the Company’s ships came every summer with goods and supplies for the year’s trading. As there was no school at York Factory, young John Bunn was sent to the Old Land for a sound education at the age of nine. For at least ten years, he did not see his parents. He was enrolled as a medical student in the University of Edinburgh for the sessions 1817-1818, 1818-1819. These appear to have been years made happy for the young student by association with congenial and jolly companions. In the possession of descendants of John Bunn is an old textbook which formerly belonged to him. In two places in that volume of a work on Natural History (physics) by Professor John Playfair FRS, young Bunn poured out the anguish of his soul. He had been instructed by his family to return home.

On the eve of his departure, he wrote on pages 106 and 107 this note of protest (dated 29 April 1819), “today I leave the University for my Native Country Hudson’s Bay. What is before me God knows but I think I am going to the Devil in a cold country. Farewell happiness, farewell my intellectual pleasures, farewell my Jolly Blues; in three months, I shall be among a parcel of hairy, frozen devils and thinking of days never to return.”

On page 193 he wrote a further note. “September 1, 1819. Well here I am at Moose Factory as wet as a drowned rat, very little pleased with my berth — a strange pack of uncivilized Souls I have got among to be sure. They speak English some of them but I very much wish I were either hanged or back at ”Auld Reekie“ with my Jolly Blues. A precious kettle of fish my old Grandad (John McNab) has made of it.”

For the next several years, John Bunn was employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. After the Union of 1821, he was transferred to the Red River Colony where his father, Thomas Bunn, had gone to live. On 23 July 1829, he was married by Reverend William Cockran to Catherine, daughter of Thomas Thomas, retired Governor of the Southern Department of Rupert’s Land. In the summer of 1831, John Bunn left his wife and young son Thomas and returned to Edinburgh University to resume his medical studies. He became a Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons.

There remains comparatively little record of Dr. Bunn’s professional career. Thomas Simpson, the Arctic explorer and cousin of Sir George Simpson, writing from Fort Garry to Chief Trader Donald Ross at Norway House on 7 December 1834 said: “Dr. Bunn is beginning to vaccinate since hearing of your foresight and success at Norway House. You asked for some vaccine matter but I cannot send it as that brought from Canada has been tried and found useless by Dr. Bunn.”

For years, Dr. Bunn was the sole doctor in the Red River Settlement. According to the census of 1832 the colony numbered 2751 people and in 1846, 4459 scattered along the banks of the two rivers.

On horseback in summer and in dog cariole in winter, he would make his way at all hours of the day or night from his home at Middlechurch to the little prairie dwellings bringing healing when he could but always a spirit of comfort and cheer. The medical tradition still prevails among the Bunn’s of today. Charles Bunn MD of Red Deer, Alberta is a great-grandson of Dr. John Bunn.

The existing records have much to say of Dr. Bunn’s public life. In 1835, the Red River Settlement was transferred by the young Earl of Selkirk back to the Hudson’s Bay Company. To provide for local government of the Colony, a Meeting of the Council of the District of Assiniboia was held at Fort Garry on 12 February 1835 with George Simpson, later knighted, Governor of Rupert’s Land, presiding. On 30 April 1835, John Bunn MD was sworn in as a councillor. This was the first of the fifty-eight meetings of the Council of Assiniboia which he attended. With James Bird, he was appointed on 16 June 1837, Magistrate of the Lower District. In 1856, he was made Governor of the Gaol and Chair-man of the Board of Works and for a time he served as Sheriff, Recorder and Coroner. Dr. H. H. Chown, a highly esteemed physician and father of Dr. Bruce Chown still practising his profession in Winnipeg, referred to Dr. Bunn as a veritable Pooh-Bah (the busy beaver of the Mikado). His early fears of “going to the devil in a cold country” were not justified. To him, in manhood, the Red River had become “his own native land” and he laboured zealously with head, heart, and hand for its advancement.

On 31 May 1861, death came to Doctor John Bunn. The issue of the Nor’Wester of 1 June 1861 which carried as headlines, “The American Rebellion”, “Fort Sumter Captured”, “Riots in Baltimore”, published the story of Dr. Bunn’s death. On the editorial page this tribute appeared: “The late Dr. Bunn member of the Council and Sheriff was universally esteemed for unquestionably he was the first and foremost of our magistrates in point of ability. Besides his efficiency as a Civil Officer, his medical services had acquired for him great popularity. His funeral was the largest the settlement had yet seen. Old and young, rich and poor, Protestant and Catholic gathered together to show the last mark of respect to the friend of all.

A Scotch slate tombstone in St. John’s Cathedral Churchyard, Winnipeg, marks his last resting place. John Bunn gave his native land great service as a pioneer physician and a devoted public servant.

Page revised: 22 January 2014

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