Blind Relief Efforts & Legacy

Blind Relief Efforts

A small newspaper notice, from Friday, February 22nd, 1918, announcing a special Eye Clinic at the School for the Blind. It was printed in The Daily Echo, Halifax.

Newspaper notice announcing "The Special Eye Clinic". Read a transcription of this notice.

After returning to Watertown (Massachusetts), Edward E. Allen continued to provide guidance to Frederick Fraser. He gave him advice on establishing and expanding a training program and classes at the Halifax School for the Blind as the school expanded its services to include adults. Allen briefly kept a diary of his work early in the event.

On January 12, Allen and Edward VanCleve met in Halifax representing the American Red Cross. The American Red Cross Committee on Eye Victims of the Halifax Explosion organized a sight saving clinic with the help of the Victorian Order of Nurses, who provided space and staff. The nurses also visited “all known cases of eye trouble” at their homes and reported their findings daily.

Clinic

Fraser invited Dr. J. Stirling, an oculist from Montreal, on January 21, 1918 to Halifax to run a free eye clinic. Dr. Stirling’s first eye clinic was held on January 31, 1918 and saw 38 patients. Fraser reported that 13 of those patients had “not seen an oculist since leaving hospital” after receiving initial treatment following the explosion. Dr. Stirling, however, was not alone in his work. A number of other eye specialists worked in Halifax to manage the large number of patients. Lotta S. Rand kept scrupulous notes about the clinic including information about attendance, the doctors, clinic management, the work done, and other records. She wrote to Allen almost daily reporting the activities and her thoughts and presented a report of her work on April 12, 1918.

Allen reported on the functions of the Clinic in his 1918 report to the American Association of Instructions of the Blind. Obviously, the first function was to help the people who had lost their sight or had an eye injury. The second function, Allen wrote, “was to evolve a program with recommendations” and present them to the Director-General of the American Red Cross. 

Rand wrote that the “chief value of the clinics was the consolation to the eye sufferers. The comfort and peace of mind resulting from consulting another eye specialist. … For these reasons alone the clinic was worthwhile.” She noted that “Sir Frederick feels public opinion strongly in favor of sight saving clinic.” 

western union telegram

Telegram from Fraser to Allen alerting him to the resistance from local oculists. Read a transcription of this telegram.

Initially, however, there was some tension between local oculists and “outsiders” who came to help develop. Fraser wrote about the tension in a Telegram and letter sent January 31, 1918. Local oculists felt that they should have been consulted before Fraser requested outside help. Ultimately, the local and outside oculists worked as a team, providing plans for ongoing care for the blind and injured. If nothing else, the visiting oculists allowed the local oculists to rest as they had been working nonstop for days on end. Allen described some of the tension in his report to the American Association of Instructors for the Blind, but was quick to credit the local “eye-men” and their response as he said that, “No account of the resulting situation should fail to credit [the] prompt aid the saving of hundreds of eyes; for without their skill and promptitude Halifax would indeed have become a city of the blind.”

Some people who questioned the work that the Halifax School for the Blind and Fraser were doing. Fraser wrote to Allen about some of the rumors that were being spread. Although it doesn’t appear that Allen faced criticism from Haligonians, he and other committee members noted that the opposition Fraser faced would be faced by anyone in his situation.

Rand had to manage many of these relationships within the clinic and she made note of her efforts in her regular letters to Allen. On March 8 she wrote that “Sir Frederick has been unkindly criticized for the way [the clinic] was arranged.”

Sight-saving classes

Joseph Murphy and his wife arrived in Halifax in April 1918. Together, they held sight-saving classes and classes on household management. These classes continued through the summer. (Halifax School for the Blind Annual Report, 1918-B, p. 41-42)

Legacy

Black and white photograph showing women and children working on sewing machines, caning chairs, and knitting at tables.

Halifax School for the Blind: Girls' Manual Training Class Engaged in Machine Sewing, Chair Caning, Weaving, Basketry, Needlepoint and Knitting, 1921. Photo courtesy of the Nova Scotia Archives.

As early as January 5, 1918, just a month after the disaster, Frederick Fraser emphasized the importance that a training and employment program would be for adults who are blinded in Halifax. In addition to braille reading and writing, men were taught pianoforte tuning, shoe repair, and cane seating, while women were taught cooking, sewing, machine sewing, knitting, and music. Edward E. Allen reiterated the “paramount necessity” of “rehabilitating the blinded” as he explained that “enforced idleness under blindness is harder to bear than blindness itself, and makes the condition a tragedy it need not be.” Allen further discussed the educational prospects of the newly blinded children and adults in Halifax in his report to the American Association of Instructors of the Blind in 1918.

The American Red Cross ended their support as they called for the Committee to “disband” in April 1919. Frank G. Persons wrote that, “...it would seem that there remains very little for the American-Canadian on Rehabilitation of the Blind to do. We have, therefore decided it would be best to formally disband the committee”. He responded to Allen that, “We, too, are very sorry that the field of usefulness, in connection with the eye sufferers of the Halifax explosion, has been closed to the Red Cross." 

Reports/Presentations 

Allen produced several reports and presentations as a result of his work. These provide important documentation of the care and support that he felt were needed long term for those affected by the Halifax disaster. Documents can be found in the Perkins School for the Blind Halifax Collection and are available on the Internet Archive. Descriptions and links to some of the reports are as follows:

Recommendations for follow up care

Twenty-four days after the Explosion, the outcome for some patients was still unknown. The Committee’s report emphasized that “much of the future” for these patients depended on how much “follow-up and after-care developed” going forward. While the report advocated for a permanent eye clinic in Halifax, it noted that there were practical problems, such as availability of staff and space. The authors argued that follow-up care was preventative care and that it was “imperative to have a definite understand how after-care” would be managed in Halifax in order to have successful programs.

Ongoing need to support 

Lotta S. Rand wrote about the ongoing need to support people who are blind or visually impaired in her Report. She proposed that the problem (“of the care, re-education and industrial training of these explosion victims) would not be settled in “weeks or months,” but would require attention and resources “indefinitely.” She noted the role that sighted people would play in the rehabilitation of the newly blinded as they participated in society: “If wisely led and thoroughly instructed the blind can accomplish so much, but the sighted must also be educated to accompany them step by step so that the dividing line between the blinded and sighted may not be too marked.”

Report from sight-saving classes

Sight-saving classes opened on Monday, February 10, 1919 with seven children (all victims of the disaster) in attendance. Joseph Murphy reported to Allen that, “We are certain that the size of this class will increase, and that in the future it may be necessary to open one or more classes of this sort."

Plan for sight-saving

A “plan for sight saving” was listed in the budget that was recommended by American Red Cross Committee on Eye Victims of the Halifax Disaster, per minutes of April 1918 meeting: “Follow-up work for a possible 180 people, 1 person at $1300 a year covering salary, oculists’ services, clerical and other services, for 5 years.”

Bibliography & Links »