O’Brien, Dr. Lewis James

Rank: Captain
Branch: Canadian Army Medical Corps

Dr. Lewis James O’Brien was born near Toronto on November 28, 1868. He was educated in Toronto, taught for awhile, then received his BA from the University of Toronto. He traveled to Germany where earned his MD from the University of Würzburg. He did clinical work in Germany and Austria for two years before moving back to Ontario to set up his medical practice. In 1903, Lewis married Miss Alice John from Extension, British Columbia.

When World War I started, Dr. O’Brien went overseas with the Canadian Army Medical Corps and served in the tent hospitals of Salonika (No. 5 Canadian General Hospital), France, Egypt and England. The couple came to the Peace Country after the war in 1918, during the Spanish Influenza Epidemic. When he arrived in Grande Prairie there was only a log mission hospital with 18 beds and a staff of one nurse and one ward aid. These two staff were on duty 24 hours a day and responsible for not only for the nursing, but for the cooking, cleaning, and laundry. The operating room equipment consisted of a wooden table and a coal oil lamp. During surgeries Dr. O’Brien acted as both anesthetist and surgeon, and often traveled long distances over undeveloped roads to operate on rural patients.

Dr. O’Brien actively promoted the idea of a community hospital, and slowly it came into being: first a local carpenter built a new operating room in lieu of paying his hospital bill, then the Ladies Hospital Auxiliary purchased the only X-ray machine north of Edmonton. By 1922, Hospital District No. 14 had been formed and the hospital was taken over by the municipality of Grande Prairie. In 1929, the hospital district was expanded and a large, modern, well-equipped new facility constructed immediately east of the pioneer log hospital.

Both Dr. O’Brien and his wife Alice contributed generously to the community of Grande Prairie and were active in civic and volunteer affairs. He served on the school board and was president of the Alberta Medical Association. He was also an MLA for four years during the 1940s.

The O’Briens raised five children and were avid naturalists. O’Brien Provincial Park, on the bank of the Wapiti River, is named after them. Dr. O’Brien passed away on June 14, 1955.

Sources: Pioneers of the Peace p. 147, 159, 162, 200, 203; Lake Saskatoon Reflections p. 218, 252; LaGlace Yesterday and Today p. 169