James Fredric Grant was born Dec. 24th, 1887 in Wellington on Vancouver Island. He obtained his preliminary education in that province and then at the age of 27 years old he came east to study medicine at McGill University where he received his MD CM in 1913. Following this he interned at the Montreal General Hospital. His chief there, Dr. William Alexander Molson, believing that Grant's health was poor, prescribed sea air and arranged for his appointment as Grant "distinguished himself by his intrepidity and attention to the rescued on that sad occasion."' ship's surgeon on the Empress of Ireland. This was how Grant came to be on the Empress when disaster struck in May 29th, 1914.
01:20 RMS Empress of Ireland drops off her pilot at Father Point and sails into disaster. Less than an hour later this proud ocean liner collides in fog with the Norwegian collier Storstad. The Empress sinks in fourteen minutes in the St. Lawrence River, taking 1,014 passengers and crew with her in the worst maritime disaster in Canadian history.
The Empress was rammed on the starboard side between the two funnels and just a few feet aft of watertight bulkhead No. 5, separating the forward and aft boiler rooms. The Storstad was estimated to have penetrated 12 to 15 feet into the Empress' side between Shelter Deck and the double-bottom hull on Orlop Deck. Some passengers were thrown from their beds by the collision, while others didn't even notice. Within three minutes water had reached the dynamos, killing the power and the lights.
At the centre of the illustration, Dr. Grant, the ship's doctor, is seen exiting through a porthole.
Dr. Grant's escape was nothing short of being miraculous as his 2nd class accommodations was situated on the upper deck on the starboard side very close to where the point of impact occurred. It took Dr. Grant several minutes to realize that the Empress of Ireland was starting to list towards starboard, he tried in vain to switch on the lights in his cabin but by now the dynmos had failed and the ship was in total darkness. Finally after several terrifying seconds had passed Dr. Grant manages to find the door to his cabin and opened it, only to hear horrifying screams from passengers and the sound of roaring sea water rushing into every opening of the Empress of Ireland as the ship listed farther and farther over to starboard. Once he left his cabin he quickly walk and crawled toward the port side of the ships. The floor started to become a wall and the walls became the floor as the Empress rolled over he could he manage to make his way towards the port side of the ship. Dr. Grant rammed himself through a porthole, these portholes diameters ranged from 10 to 12 inches in diameter, he fought to get his shoulders get pass the porthole. Then suddenly someone pulled him upwards and he found himself on the port side of the Empress with hundreds of other passengers and crew. Suddenly the Empress of Ireland slipped beneath his feet, Doctor Grant later recalled that if felt like he was walking down a sandy beach to bathe.
Dr. Grant struggled in the water among hundreds of other survivors as the fog rolled in over them, in the far distance he could see the distance lights of a ship which he found out later had been the Storstad. He started to swim towards the Storstad but was picked up by one of the lifeboats which eventually brought him to the Storstad.
Hero or not, there is no doubt that his care of the other survivors was both efficient and gallant. Clad only in pyjama tops and borrowed trousers, several sizes too large and supported by a string around the waist, he calmly went to work. The injuries he encountered were many and varied - fractures of arms and legs, and wounds, external and internal, from crushing at the time of the collision or later. In addition, many survivors were near death from immersion in the icy water and exposure in the lifeboats.
"The survivors united in laying such honor [that of chief hero] on the shoulders of Dr. James F. Grant, a 1913 graduate of McGill, the ship's doctor, who calmed the terror-stricken, kept hope alive in the breasts of those who felt themselves bereaved of loved ones; who quieted the ravings of those whom the shock had, for a time, made insensible to those human attributes which make heroes; who went about among the rescued and gave them treatment, not only for their physical injuries, but for the awful mental shocks which had been endured."
Dr. Grant Ship Surgeon of the R.M.S. Empress of Ireland
Other tributes were paid. What was perhaps the most unusual one came from his alma mater, McGill University. Grant's medical diploma had gone down with the Empress. According to Cleveland's account, published in The Bulletin of the Vancouver Medical Association, at the McGill medical convocation, held June 9th, 1914, Dr. Grant was seated on the platform with the members of the faculty, formally introduced to convocation, and then presented with a duplicate diploma. The minutes of that convocation referred to the sinking of the Empress of Ireland and recorded that Dr. Grant had "distinguished himself by his intrepidity and attention to the rescued on that sad occasion."
Grant's efforts on behalf of the survivors of the sinking were recognized in Great Britain. His photograph, taken shortly after the sinking, was published on June 13, 1914 in The Illustrated London News. The accompanying caption reads, "A hero of the disaster: Dr. J.F. Grant, of the 'Empress of Ireland', to whom all pay tribute." The Council of the British Medical Association recorded in its minutes a proposal that Dr. Grant should be awarded the BMA Silver Medal for Distinguished Merit. This was supported by a June 19th personal note, now preserved in the Harvey Cushing papers in the Osler Library at McGill University, from Sir William Osler. The matter was not pursued but this seems to have been due, not to doubts about the appropriateness of the award, but to the distracting influence of the outbreak of World War I that August. In Britain, notice was also taken of Grant in the correspondence columns of the British Medical Journal 1914. An "ex-ship surgeon" wrote, praising Dr. Grant's " gallant behaviour" and suggesting that ship surgeons subscribe to a suitable testimonial to be sent to Dr. Grant: Like the BMA Medal, nothing was heard of this and probably for the same reason, preoccupation with the war. It seems likely that Grant might have received many honours and awards if it had not been for the outbreak of war so soon after the sinking of the Empress. Information about Dr. Grant's subsequent career has come from correspondence from one of his daughters, Mrs. Beverley D. Roberts, and the registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia.
After receiving his duplicate diploma from McGill in June 1914,Grant returned to British Columbia, his original home. He obtained his licence to practise medicine there in October of that year and settled in Victoria. He was chief medical officer for the Canadian Pacilfic Railway in Vancouver Island, served as a medical examiner for the Canadian army, and held appointments at the Royal Jubilee and St. Joseph's hospitals. He was also a partner with two of his brothers in a logging company.
His life in Victoria appears to have been free from the type of drama that he experienced in May of 1914. For this he was no doubt grateful. Indeed one of his daughters states that she never heard him discuss the sinking of the Empress of Ireland; perhaps he did not care to recall the tragic affair. "Dr. James Frederick Grant, aged 59, for many years a resident of Victoria, died January 9, 1947 in the Royal Columbia Hospital, New Westminster. He was born in Wellington, Vancouver Island. He is survived by two sons, two daughters, five brothers, and three sisters."
As the 100 Anniversary into the Sinking of the Empress of Ireland it should also include the gallant heros who made it possible for so many to live another day, one of these heros was Doctor James Frederick Grant and he should be remembered for that tragic night on May 29th, 1914.
The story was recalled in an appreciation by D.E.H. Cleveland in the Bulletin of the Vancouver Medical Association
Source and Picture Credit: Logan Marshall's, James Croall, The Sphere.