Halifax’s revolutionary doctor

Harold Benge Atlee

Harold Benge Atlee who was born in Pictou in 1890, received his early education in Annapolis Royal, and graduated from Dalhousie medical school in 1911. Medical school didn’t take as long back then and he was a gifted student, advancing quickly. At the age of 21, he became the youngest graduate in the school’s history.

He spent a year in general practice followed by post-graduate studies in England. In 1914, he enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps to serve during the First World War, receiving the Military Cross for gallantry during his service. He returned to England to complete his studies and was made a Fellow by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

He returned to Halifax in 1921, appointed Professor and Chair of the first combined Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Dalhousie. His youth and relative inexperience drew fierce criticism but he soon earned his reputation as a brilliant physician who made several breakthroughs in obstetrics.

Among the most significant was his introduction of “early ambulation.” Today we know that the worse thing for a woman following the birth of her baby is staying in bed for prolonged periods. But before Atlee introduced his practice, the norm was to keep women in bed for 10 to 12 days.

Atlee’s refusal to accept conventional wisdom had a dramatic and positive impact on how women are cared for after a delivery. He told a doctor in 1976: “Many years ago, I came to the conclusion that lying in bed for week, or longer, after a birth was unhealthy.” The new mothers who took his advice reported feeling much better, much sooner. Yet his medical peers condemned his “revolutionary” approach.

Harold Benge Atlee

Atlee recalled meeting a famous obstetrician in Chicago: “When I related my experience to him, he was shocked and warned me that this type of activity would lead to serious medical problems such as prolapse of the pelvic organs and pulmonary embolism… Fortunately, I was tough minded enough to disregard the master’s advice and go on my way. And, I continued advising an active post delivery period.”

Another controversy embroiled him when he had a Catholic patient who need a hysterectomy, a procedure the church condemned, as it ended her chance to have more children. An outraged Atlee confronted her priest, convincing him to relent. He also waged war against the ban on abortions, frequently arguing that prohibition just drove women to illegal, unsafe procedures.

He died in 1978, leaving behind an astounding legacy as a man who not only had had a controversial and flamboyant career but was a brilliant healer and teacher, who truly deserves his place of honour in this province’s medical profession’s history.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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