Remembering the Dominica Dispensary, Early Medical Care & Roseau in the Old Days
By Gabriel J. Christian, Esq.
One of the images of my childhood revolved around the old stores in Roseau. Roseau then was far different than it is today. Indeed, coming into Roseau at night, one was greeted by street vendors selling fried fish, fresh bread, and rough cakes on the roadside under the glare of rudimentary lamps called "bouzai." It was a vibrant hub of home-grown industry, even where most folks were of modest means.
Most of the shops and stores were locally owned. One of the most memorable stores was the Dominica Dispensary. I wanted to find out about the genesis of that institution. I knew it was owned by the Green's. Memories of that time led to a call to local dentist Dr. Richard Green, the grandson of the deceased proprietor of the Dominica Dispensary.
I then spoke to his ninety-one-year-old father, physician Dr. William "Billy" Green:
Dr Green was born on September 3, 1929, at the Dominica Dispensary. It was not unusual for people to be born at home in those days, with the assistance of midwives – though there was a Roseau Hospital where Government Headquarters is now located.
His parents were Sydney Leopold Vaughan Green and Clara Winston Green. His father, Sidney, was a pharmacist, and his mother was a housewife. He is the only surviving child. He had a half-sister, Dorothy Green, who has since passed.
Dr Green recalls:
My father and Albert Cavendish (A.C.) Shillingford were business partners, and they started a pharmacy. After they separated, Albert Cavendish Shillingford started the Phoenix Store. My father then started the Dominica Dispensary with the aid of his sister Christabel Green.
I entered the Dominica Grammar School in 1940 and then transferred to the Antigua Grammar School. In those days, it was a Roman Catholic boarding school. I did my Cambridge University School Certificate exam at 17. I did English, Latin, French, Geography, Mathematics, History and Botany. At age 17, I was offered a job as a junior master. I then did a B.A. in English at Loyola College in Montreal, Canada. I arrived in Montreal in 1948 and graduated in 1952. Social life in Montreal was limited. I was at a boarding school; weekends were for cinema and hockey games. I moved to Europe from Montreal and attended medical school at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, where I studied medicine. It was tough as the classes were given in French. I did my residency in the United States and studied at New Jersey Medical Center from 1958 to 1959. I returned to Dominica in 1959 and immediately joined the medical services. Upon my return, I was appointed medical director at the new Princess Margaret Hospital in Dominica, which had opened up in the late 1950s under Chief Minister Frank Baron.
My grandfather Edward Richard Green, was a magistrate who lived at LaPlaine. I remember him vaguely. My grandmother was Stella Robinson, who was related to the Robinson family at Marigot. The Robinsons are descended from some Irish settlers who came to Dominica. All the Robinsons in Dominica are somehow related.
In those days, the purpose of the Dominica Dispensary was as a pharmacy. However, it branched out into providing other things and sold cameras, cosmetics, and pens. And some food such as chocolate and tonics. The Dominica Dispensary also engaged in the export of limes.
The Dominica Dispensary was also involved in the insurance business and represented Sunlife insurance
They were also agents for Ford Motor Company and Nestle Milk Company.
The dispenser and his aides often wore a white shirt, white coat, and tie. The dispensary was also a grocery selling flour, sugar, and powdered milk.
My father's sister, Aunty Christabelle Green, ran the grocery side. She purchased the chocolates and cosmetics while my grandfather ran the dispensary side.
Some Highlights on Local Medicine of Old: When I came home in 1959, there were few doctors in those days. The local doctors were:Dr. Dorian Shillingford, Dr. Desmond McIntyre, Dr. Vincent Winston, Dr. Edward Watty, and Dr. Phillip Griffin. Later, some Polish doctors like Dr. Bronislaw Basteria came in. But the local doctors did yeoman service. They kept things going and forged a strong healthcare system.
At that time, Dominica had two diseases prevalent before 1959 – yaws and jiggers. Yaws was an infectious disease which infected the feet with sores. When penicillin came in, yaws was eradicated. Same with jiggers – a parasite that came through the feet.
Leprosy was a problem in Dominica then. It was eradicated with the help of Dr. Lawrence Charles – the brother of Eugenia Charles, who later became our Prime Minister. We did so well that we could close down the Leper Home at Tareau and release the remaining lepers to their homes. We treated the lepers with sulfa drugs and also Clofazimine and rifampin.
Other Local Businesses: King George V Street businesses were a mixed group. There was Ayoub Dib, who had a dry goods store. Nassief had a dry goods store that was burnt down during the Grandbay uprising of 1974. Mr. Mondesire had a small supermarket with a restaurant. Wolseley Edwards ran a hardware store. Astaphan's later opened his supermarket in the 1960s. Nassief, Astaphan and Dib were Lebanese. There was Campbell Phillip, who owned a clothing and mixed goods store, and Frampton, Julian's and Waldron, well-known jewellers who made and sold jewellery. The other business owners were of Dominican heritage or West Indian origin. In those days, the stores had display windows, and people would go window shopping during the Christmas holidays.
At that time, the Dominica Dispensary was the leading dispensary in Roseau. The Phoenix Store also had a dispensary, and there was a Watty Dispensary on King George V Street and Charles Drug Store. Jolly's Pharmacy and Val Cuffy's Bulls Eye Pharmacy came much later.
How news travelled in the old days: There were few radios in Roseau during World War II. In those days, Dib would place his radio on the verandah, and people would gather below it to listen to the war news from the BBC. Edison Wyke, a Black Dominican butcher, also had a big radio that he would place on his porch. Dozens of people would gather to listen to the news and music, and they would then spread the word of what they heard.
We had a small radio at home that my Dad hooked up to a 9-volt battery. However, most people in Dominica had no radio or phone in those days. As a result, people would go to the Cable & Wireless office in Roseau to read news bulletins off a bulletin board to get news. The Cable & Wireless office would type up the news they received by underwater cable and bulletins. Afterwards, people would spread the news by word of mouth or consult the Dominica Chronicle, the leading newspaper.
Electricity and how Under Power got its name: Roseau had no electric streetlamps like now. So back then, there was a lamp lighter that would go around lighting the lamp poles, which had oil lamps. Back then, we had electricity from an electric dynamo at Elmshall, where the University of the West Indies Open Campus is now. And that is how the popular Roseau River basin called "Under Power" got its name. The river basin was below the electric dynamo, or generator, which sat on that cliff over that spot on the Roseau River. The power station was run by Eddie Trotter, the uncle of people like the civil engineer Garner Trotter and the Black Power advocate Desmond "Ras Kabinda" Trotter.
My time at college in Canada and Belgium gave me ideas on business, and I introduced some of those ideas into the running of the Dominica Dispensary.
I later married Daisy Margot Green, nee Kelsick of Montserrat. We met at a West Indian dance in the Bronx when I studied in the U.S. and fell in love. We have three children: Richard, Eloise, and Sharon.
According to Dr. Billy Green, the electricity only came from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. on those days. His father had a kerosene fridge, and no one had electricity during the day. Ice was scarce and could usually be found in the tubs of ice cream vendors at carnival, cricket games at the gardens, parish fairs, Christmas or on Sundays. They would work the ice cream tubs by hand and carry them around the streets, often on their heads. If someone wanted an ice cream cone, they would sit down the tub, and if they had no ice cream cones, they would place the ice cream in a glass that the customer fetched from their cabinet where breakable dishes were kept.
The record reveals that Roseau had two or three small soft drink factories. One of which was K.B. Cola in the Pound area. However, the major soft drink factory came in the early 1960s, and Josephine Gabriel, the local agent for Coca-Cola owned it. It was located next to the Dominica Grammar School on Valley Road. That is when one started seeing soft drink trucks crisscrossing the country selling 7-Up, Coca Cola and Fanta. L. Rose Lime Juice Cordial later, however, was the most popular local drink and had been around since the 1920s.
The Small Shops:
The Roseau central area had what passed for big stores owned by the more affluent classes and the Lebanese. In Pottersville, Newtown and scattered around Roseau were small shops owned by the humble. These shops were usually one-room affairs with a counter behind which the owner would preside. Behind the counter were shelves with one-pound paper bags of sugar, rice, flour, and sometimes red beans. In those humble shops, the working classes would come in to get a pound of pig snout, a quarter pound of cheese, salami, or margarine; a bottle of oil or a gill (a gill is a quarter of a pint) of rum or oil.
On the counter of these shops would repose the ubiquitous scale with its two brass plates – one for the product, the other for the weights. Sometimes, the shopkeeper would cut an exercise book in half to serve the children of the poor. I recall the names of famous shopkeepers of that time: Hayden Thomas, Boysie Thomas, Tommy, Dixon, Ma Anna, and Diane Peters. There were many others. Jostling against the modest dwellings of the working classes were many bakeries in various yards where bakers plied their trade baking penny bread or an elegant and bigger loaf mastiff. It was then the custom to eat penny bread during the week and reserve the more ample mastiff loaf for Sundays or special occasions. The penny bread would get rubbery and hard after a day or two, but the mastiff could last longer and had a richer flavour.
With trade union influencing public policy, universal adult suffrage evolved after World War II. Such voting power brought the working classes into parliament, triggering better education access and improved social conditions. That transformation slowly made Roseau a more democratic city. By the 1970s, new stores by children of the working classes, such as Annette St. Hilaire and Norris Prevost ("Buy Trinee"), Herbert "Sukie: Winston, Vena McDougal, and Sheridan Gregoire's supermarket, among others, arose. Accountant Julius Timothy later bought AC Shillingford's flagship Phoenix Store. Change had come to Roseau.
The legacy of healthcare services started by local pioneers in medicine like Dr. Green continues with my Sixth Form College friend, dental surgeon Dr. Richard Green. Green runs a well-appointed dental surgery in Roseau, ably assisted by his office manager and wife, Lesley Ann Green nee Barrow of San Fernando, Trinidad. Dr. Green and his wife are both graduates of the University of the West Indies and Howard University in Washington D.C. In their business ownership, along with many new dentists like Drs. Damian Dublin, Cyrille Robinson, Idaline Darroux-John and others, they continue the legacy of providing health care to our population while retaining a niche in our economy for local businesspeople.
Today, the Dominica Dispensary carries on that proud tradition of Dominican enterprise and is now owned by Jolly's Pharmacy. The renowned local dispenser (Dominicans call pharmacists "dispensers"), Anderson Jolly, a kind, gracious and humble man, was the proprietor of Jolly's Pharmacy. He was conferred the Sisserou Award of Honour in 2007 for supporting the local healthcare system. Mr. Jolly, who had been an entrepreneur and pioneer in the sale of pharmaceuticals, died on Friday, November 11 2016.
Today, Jolly's Pharmacy has ventured into manufacturing. Jolly's manufacturing, a subsidiary company of Jolly's Pharmacy, has launched new products. The new products manufactured by the company in Dominica include Bay-off insect repellant, cream, and spray, the Babylis male and female adult deodorant, the Babylis cream, M.B. ointment and bathing soaps, Babylis nursery jelly, Peridavite tonic, Basalicon ointment, Children's Chest Rub, Sulphur ointment and the Black disinfectant Jeyes. The wide array of locally produced personal and healthcare products is a testament to Dominican ingenuity and creativity, where opportunities are given.
We encourage our people in business ownership and beneficial networking/teaming endeavours only in Roseau but around the island. Such ownership of enterprise and mutually beneficial teaming will allow for the dignity of honest labour and effort to reap benefits for all our people. Such independence via industrious effort, where the government provides an enabling environment for local enterprise, will further expand capacity and local prosperity. Such will inspire our young to further creativity, allowing them to use their native intelligence and education to build wholesome lives for themselves and their families on the island.