A Lifetime of Service: The Medical Career of Lieutenant Colonel Allan M. Davidson

A museum collection is more than an assortment of objects. It is a gateway into our collective past. Objects provide a tangible connection to the stories that make up individuals and communities. Of all the artifacts in museum collections, photographs provide perhaps the most visceral connection to the past. Photographs are snapshots of a moment in time that capture not only people, places, or things; they capture the stories embodied in the subject. This is certainly the case for two photographs currently in the collection at the Museum of Health Care at Kingston. These photographs represent a personal story of service and sacrifice, as well as highlight themes in Canadian history and culture. They tell a story of courage, medicine, war, and peace.

Two photographs currently in the collection at the Museum of Health Care at Kingston. Each features Lieutenant Colonel Allan M. Davidson who served in the Royal Canadian Medical Corps. These photographs were donated by his daughter, Mrs. Barbara Bremner.

These photographs are of Lieutenant Colonel Allan M. Davidson. Davidson was a medical officer in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps who had a distinguished military and medical career. His military service began in his home of Winnipeg, Manitoba, as an Army Cadet with the Winnipeg Rifles. After officer training beginning in 1940, he entered active service in 1944. At the same time, Davidson worked towards a medical degree from the University of Manitoba.[1] This commitment to military and medical service came to define his life. He was discharged from the military in 1946 to pursue further medical training in surgery, orthopedics, urology, and plastic surgery. However, this was far from the end of his military service. He reenlisted in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps in 1951.[2] This was a time of escalating international conflict and before long, Davidson was sent to Korea.

The Korean War was fought between forces supporting the communist government of North Korea and those supporting the democratic government of South Korea between 1950 and 1953. It was one of the first major conflicts of the Cold War era and represented how Cold War rivalries manifested globally. Proxy wars became the norm in the second half of the twentieth century, as opposed to open conflict between the World’s most powerful nations. Canada, along with the United States and other United Nations forces supported South Korea, while North Korea received military aid from China.[3]

Image
Top view of Colonel Davidson’s First Aid kit case, currently in the collection at the Museum of Health Care at Kingston.

Lieutenant Colonel Davidson, then a Major, served in Korea in 1952. He was Commanding Officer and Surgical Specialist of Canadian Field Surgical Team. His daughter, Mrs. Barbara Bremner, donated his first aid kit case to the Museum of Health Care. It is believed to have been issued to Davidson for his tour in Korea and represents his dedication to the preservation of life, even during the most violent of circumstances.[4] Lieutenant Colonel Davidson also served as Officer-in-Charge of Surgery-Canadian Section – British Commonwealth Hospital in Kure, Japan at the end of 1952.[5]

Lieutenant Colonel Davidson’s career of service did not end upon returning to Canada in 1953. Instead, he became Chief of Surgery at Whitehorse Military Hospital. He remained there until 1955, when he departed for Toronto East General and Orthopedic Hospital. There, he served as Chief Surgical Resident before taking the same position at Toronto Military Hospital (Sunnybrook). During this time, he continued to hone his surgical craft, obtaining Certified Specialist in General Surgery qualifications from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.[6] Then in 1957, Davidson once again answered the call to serve. This time, he served in Egypt during a crisis that would change Canada’s role in international relations and conflict for decades to come.

Egypt occupies a strategically important position within the context of the Middle East in terms of international trade and transportation. This is largely due to the Suez Canal, a waterway that connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Egypt became an independence nation after the Second World War, but the British and French still had controlling interests in the Suez Canal. Chaos ensued when in 1956 Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized and took control of the Canal. This act prompted Great Britain, France, and Israel, to act. Each of these nations had interests in the Suez Canal and responded with invasion.[7]

The global response to the Suez Crisis was the first major U. N. peacekeeping mission in history and is seen as the beginning of modern international peacekeeping. Future Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, then Minister of External Affairs, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in organizing the peacekeeping mission. British, French, and Israeli forces eventually withdrew and U. N. personnel remained in the area for the next decade.[8] While the initial conflict was short lived, Egypt and the Gaza Strip remained a hot spot for conflict in the decades following the Suez Crisis.

Despite Canada’s new role in the World as a peacekeeping force, the sacrifices made by Canadians were no less profound. Canadian military personnel risked, and continue to risk, their lives to promote peaceful resolution to violent crises. This was also true for medical personnel, like Lieutenant Colonel Davidson, who fulfilled their role in promoting peace through the treatment of the casualties of war. The shifting role of Canada on the World stage, as well as the personal dedication to the preservation of life, even in times of war, is captured in the two photographs of Lieutenant Colonel Davidson currently in the collection at the Museum of Health Care.

Colonel Davidson
One of two photographs of Lieutenant Colonel Davidson during his tour in Egypt in 1957 currently in the collection at the Museum of Health Care at Kingston.

A copy of this photograph appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press in July of 1957. It was taken during Lieutenant Colonel Davidson’s tenure at the United Nations Hospital Middle East in 1957. The patient lying on the bed is 2nd Lieutenant Behosja Orlovic, a Yugoslav officer who was badly wounded following a mine explosion. Davidson leans over the patient with his left hand at the head of the bed and anaesthetist Major Bob Hetherington to his right. 2nd Lieutenant Orlovic required several surgeries and this photograph shows the three men discussing how one of these surgeries went.[9] The photograph demonstrates the doctors’ dedication to their patient amid trying circumstances far from home. It is also symbolic of the larger situation that surrounds the men. People from different nations and different backgrounds came together during and after the Suez Crisis to promote peaceful resolution to international problems, much like two Canadians doctors coming to the aid of a Yugoslav officer.

Colnel Davidon Son 2
One of two photographs of Lieutenant Colonel Davidson during his tour in Egypt in 1957 currently in the collection at the Museum of Health Care at Kingston.

The second photograph was also taken during Lieutenant Colonel Davidson’s time in Egypt. Rather than showing the end result, this photograph depicts what wartime surgery actually looks like. Davidson is seated in the centre of the makeshift operating room with the anaesthetist to his left holding an anaesthesia mask to the patient’s mouth.[10] Two additional personnel wearing surgical masks and caps stand at the ready and watch as Davidson operates on the patient’s hand. The patient could have been a soldier, peacekeeper, or even a civilian. Treating refugee casualties was part of a long list of duties for Davidson while in Egypt and the Gaza Strip.[11] As is often the case, civilian refugees were hit hard by the short and destructive conflict.

While the exact circumstances of the photograph are unknown, symbolically depicted in the photograph is Lieutenant Colonel Davidson’s commitment to two important callings in his life. The white surgical masks and cloth clash with the military uniforms worn by Davidson and the medical staff. Yet for Davidson, this contrast ended there. His life is a testament to the belief that service to country and service to the sanctity of human life need not be mutually exclusive. It is these complimentary commitments that defined his life, and makes these photographs even more powerful.

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Open view of Colonel Davidson’s First Aid kit case, currently in the collection at the Museum of Health Care at Kingston.

Davidson returned from Egypt with the rank Lieutenant Colonel and became Commanding Officer of Whitehorse Military Hospital and Chief of Surgery at Whitehorse General Hospital, serving there until 1960.[12] He was then Chief of Surgery at Toronto Military Hospital from 1961 to 1962. In recognition of his lifetime of service to both medicine and the Canadian military, Davidson was appointed Canadian Forces Medical Liaison Officer to the Surgeon General U. S. Army in Washington D. C. in 1962, a post he held for two years. His military career came to a close in 1970, after serving from 1964 to 1970 as Head of Department of Surgery and Chief of Medical Staff at Canadian Forces Hospital, Kingston. True to form, his dedication to service did not end there. Following retirement from the military, Davidson entered private practice in Peterborough, Ontario.[13] He practiced as General Surgeon at Brookdale Family Clinic before passing away in April of 1977.[14]

The life and career of Lieutenant Colonel Davidson is a testament to the service and sacrifice of Canadians who serve in both the military and medical field. His life also brings together many different themes in Canadian history and culture. This effectively demonstrates how everyday objects, like photographs, can tell a wide range of stories that are both personal and far reaching. These photographs embody messages that help define culture and community values as well as highlight the selfless contributions of one brave Canadian. It is the role of museums, like the Museum of Health Care, to showcase these important artifacts and to tell these important stories.


Special Thanks!

A special thank you to Mrs. Barbara Bremner, daughter of Lieutenant Colonel Davidson and donor of the artifacts discussed above. The information she provided through phone conversations, notes, and newspaper clippings describing her father’s extraordinary career formed the bulk of this article. It is contributions like those made by Mrs. Bremner that allow museums to tell important and worthwhile stories. Her father truly had a most interesting life that deserves to be celebrated.


About the Author : Zane Smith

Zane

Zane Smith is currently entering his final year in the Applied Museum Studies program at Algonquin College in Ottawa. Originally from Oromocto, New Brunswick, Zane received a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in History from Saint Thomas University in 2017. During the summer of 2019, Zane helped catalogue, research, and provide care for the artefacts in the museum’s collection as a Collections Technician

Citations

[1] “Retirement: LCol Allan M. Davidson, SBSTJ, C.D., M.D., F.A.C.S.” 1970, Donor File 018.014, Museum of Health Care at Kingston.

[2] “Retirement: LCol Allan M. Davidson, SBSTJ, C.D., M.D., F.A.C.S.” 1970, Donor File 018.014, Museum of Health Care at Kingston.

[3] “The Canadian Armed Forces in Egypt.” Veterans Affairs Canada, Government of Canada, 2019. Accessed 12 August 2019.

[4] Barbara Bremner, Letter from Donor, 5 February 2018, Donor File 018.014, Museum of Health Care at Kingston.

[5] “Retirement: LCol Allan M. Davidson, SBSTJ, C.D., M.D., F.A.C.S.” 1970, Donor File 018.014, Museum of Health Care at Kingston.

[6] “Retirement: LCol Allan M. Davidson, SBSTJ, C.D., M.D., F.A.C.S.” 1970, Donor File 018.014, Museum of Health Care at Kingston.

[7] “The Canadian Armed Forces in Egypt.” Veterans Affairs Canada, Government of Canada, 2019. Accessed 12 August 2019.

[8] “The Canadian Armed Forces in Egypt.” Veterans Affairs Canada, Government of Canada, 2019. Accessed 12 August 2019.

[9] Winnipeg Free Press, July 6, 1957.

[10] Artifact 018.014.003, Museum of Health Care at Kingston.

[11] “Winnipeg Major Helps Hospital in Gaza Strip.” 26 September 1957, Donor File 018.014, Museum of Health Care at Kingston.

[12] “Army Promotion for City Doctor.” 1957, Donor File 018.014, Museum of Health Care at Kingston.

[13] “Retirement: LCol Allan M. Davidson, SBSTJ, C.D., M.D., F.A.C.S.” 1970, Donor File 018.014, Museum of Health Care at Kingston.

[14] Barbara Bremner. Letter from Donor, 5 February 2018, Donor File 018.014, Museum of Health Care at Kingston.

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