Imagine being strapped to a bed by a metal harness—your arms, legs and head immobilized only able to move your hands and eyes—and then being wheeled into the sun, there to bake still for hours, all for the sake of your health.
That’s the reality Robert Mills faced for five years at Toronto’s Dominion Orthopaedic Hospital (DOH), as he battled spinal tuberculosis brought on by wounds suffered during the First World War.
Many soldiers’ lives are turned upside down by the horrors war. But for Mills, his view of the world was literally flipped upside. Unable to move or lift his head, he was forced to rely on a mirror fastened above his bed to see nurses, doctors, and masseuses that bustled about him during his treatments.
Mills was among the first test subjects of experimental research—called heliotherapy—intended to remedy his ailment that was considered incurable.
He and his friend Cecil Hamilton were part of the “original rooftop gang” at DOH that were placed under the care of famous physicians, including Dr. Robert Inkerman Harris and Dr. Lawrence Robertson. The friends were stationed side-by-side, strapped with steel to their mattresses—their beds fastened atop what was, at the time, the tallest hospital in Toronto.
Historian Michael Bliss said, “It was believed that any exertion would be harmful to a TB patient, so he/she had to remain perfectly still while out of doors. In sanatoriums and hospitals TB patients were put outside, even in the coldest days of winter, bundled in blankets, and left all day every day (hopefully) to heal.”
Mills and Hamilton kept busy by composing cartoons and stories for their spoof newspaper The Hamilton-Mills Weekly, made possible through donations from the Red Cross.
They wrote a poem for their publication reflecting on their long and tedious stay: “Still upon our backs we lie, a curio for doctor’s skill, and victims of a nurse’s will, our thoughts yell back to days of yore when all the world was bathed in war.”
Mills was seventeen-years-old when he first signed up to serve. Like many other boys from the time, he lied about his age in order to go to war.
Disaster struck, however, in April 1917 at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Mills was a corporal with the 48th Highlanders and was buried by a shell and severely wounded. He spent a year afterwards in hospitals across the United Kingdom, until he could be invalided home in 1918.
From his sky-high prison, Mills was able to complete his high school diploma, obtain a degree in business, and most importantly, win the love of the woman who would become his wife—head masseuse, Kathleen Jones. As an article about The Hamilton-Mills Weekly from a 1920 issue of the Toronto Sun proposed, “the war didn’t discover all the heroism.”
Mills was very fortunate, indeed, to have ended up in the hands of Harris and Robertson, as he was eventually cured from his sickness. He left the hospital relatively healthy, aside from several damaged vertebrae—now fused to his neck, and a permanently locked right knee. We cannot know for sure if heliotherapy was responsible for such a miracle.
“The prima facie evidence is that something conquered the disease—presumably the soldier's strong constitution combined with all that rest. My sense of the literature is that there was enough tubercular remission achieved by heroic treatments like this to convince physicians of its usefulness. But no controlled trial was ever done, and after antibiotics came along no one was interested in doing it retrospectively,” said Bliss.
Upon being discharged from the DOH, Robert Mills and his wife moved to Oshawa, where he began his career with General Motors. They were married soon after, in 1923, and gave birth to twins the next year.
“Fifty years later, Mills loved to tell his seven grandchildren that he met their grandmother in a body rub parlour,” granddaughter Patricia Staunton said with a laugh.
Robert Mills passed away in July 1977, at the age of eighty.
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