Throwback Thursday: April 22 1915 – The 2nd Battle of Ypres and Dr. George Nasmith

This week we look back 102 years to April 22 1915 and the 2nd Battle of Ypres during the First World War. Dr. George Gallie Nasmith played a key role in this battle by creating first a temporary solution for gassed soldiers and later the first gas mask. It is thought that Nasmith Avenue in Cabbagetown was named after Dr. Nasmith (or possibly his family which had been well known bakers in the city for some time before the street was created after the demolition of the Toronto General Hospital in the 1920s).

For more about the naming history of Nasmith Avenue, visit nasmithavenue.com.

Here is the story about Dr. Nasmith:
Image of Dr. George Gallie Nasmith
Doctor, Colonel George Gallie Nasmith C.M.G.

George Gallie Nasmith was born at Toronto 31 December 1877 to mother Jane (neé Morrow) of England and father Mungo Nasmith (born in Greenock, Scotland). Mungo Nasmith was a tax collector, property developer and one of the sons of John Nasmith, a baker well known in the city, which meant that John Nasmith the baker was George Gallie Nasmith’s grandfather.

George had achondroplasia, a common cause of dwarfism and in adulthood stood four-foot-six, although his family at one time believed he had drunk tubercular milk when a small child and that this was the cause of his stunted growth. He graduated from the University of Toronto in 1903 with a degree in philosophy but obtained honours studying Geology and Organic Chemistry there also. He lived at 14 Maitland Street in Toronto in 1911 and worked for the city’s health dept. where he was Deputy Health Officer, Acting Medical Health Officer and Director of Civic Laboratories at various times. He was described at the time as being “Canada’s most noted bacteriologist”. He was the Chief Assistant to Dr. Charles Hastings and Dr. Nasmith was in charge of the city’s water supply during the period where the death toll from typhoid fever was reduced from 41 citizens per hundred to 2. He was also instrumental in the programme that ensured the quality control of milk in the city.

On 22 September 1914, at the age of 36, Dr. Nasmith joined the First World War by enlisting in the Canadian Army. Due to his experience, he was given command of the Canadian Mobile Laboratory with reponsibility to ensure troops were provided with purified water and proper sanitation which was not easy to come by in the fields of Salisbury Plain, England and the muddy trenches of France and Belgium.

Dr. Nasmith’s most recognized contributions came during the 2nd Battle of Ypres on 22 April 1915 (100 years ago today). Ypres is a Flemish town in western Belgium famous for its Cloth Hall and for the battles there. The 2nd Battle of Ypres was the first time that a former colonial force (1st Canadian Division) defeated that of a European power (Germany) and was a significant battle in the larger scope of the war. The famous poem “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was written at the 2nd Battle of Ypres on 3 May 1915 less than two weeks after the incident described below.

On 22 April 2015, Dr. Nasmith was travelling near Ypres and saw the first mass use of poison gas on the Western Front. An attempt by the Germans a few months earlier had failed, but on this occasion thousands of allied soldiers were killed and injured within minutes. Dr. Nasmith was acquainted with chlorine due to his work on water purification and immediately identified chlorine as the main ingredient, and surmised that it also contained bromine and other elements.

It is thought that either Dr. Nasmith, or Dr. Capt. Francis Scrimger (V.C.) of the 2nd Canadian Field Ambulance first passed orders informing soldiers that soaking cloth in urine and breathing through it would counteract the gas. In my reading of these men and others, it seems that allowing others to take credit for one’s actions was a commonplace occurrence so it’s possible that one or both Doctors came upon the same solution at the same time. What isn’t disputed however, is that after the battle Dr. Nasmith determined that by saturating a small cotton pad with hypo-sulphite of soda and placing it over the mouth and nose, the effects of the gas could be reduced and thus he had created the first gas mask of the war. The lab that Dr. Nasmith had set up for sanitation was later used for a number of experiments with hopes of protecting soldiers from poison gas attacks and for his work, he was mentioned in dispatches and made a Companion of St. Michael and St. George (C.M.G.) by King George V.

Belgian Troops Wearing Early Gas Masks
Belgian Troops Wearing Early Gas Masks

Read Dr. Nasmith’s full account of what happened 22 April 1915, taken from his book Canada’s Sons and Great Britain In The World War – with introduction by General Sir Arthur Currie.

Somehow, amongst the chaos of the war, Dr. Nasmith found his way home to Toronto at the end of 1915 for 6 weeks leave and on 20 January 1916, he married Mrs. Emma Scott-Raff at St. Paul’s Church on Bloor St. East.

Mrs. Scott-Raff, through Mrs. Timothy Eaton, was the principal at Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression (from 1907 – 1925), had trained as an artist and was also described as an “elocutionist”. She had been born in Owen Sound, had taught painting and married her first husband in Colorado, U.S.A.. After his death, she had returned to Toronto where she had met Dr. Nasmith. Within an hour of the end of the ceremony, the happy couple were on a train to New York where he would embark for France for the remainder of the war. The wedding was noteworthy enough to be featured along with a photo, on the front page of the next day’s Toronto Daily Star.

Nasmith Wedding Toronto Star

After returning to Canada after the war, he rejoined the city’s health dept. but in 1918 and 1919 he had month-long sick leaves due to illness which were suspected to be related to the effects of the gas attack he experienced in 1915 and other injuries (he had hurt his knee in one instance).

Dr. Nasmith wrote a number of books: On the Fringe of the Great Fight (1917), Canada’s Sons and Great Britain in the World War (1919), Timothy Eaton (1923) and Smiths of a Better Quality (1925), The Chemistry of Wheat Gluten (1903) – U of T Theses as well as numerous papers and books on food, water and other scientific topics. It’s interesting to note that while he was writing his biography of Timothy Eaton, Mrs. Nasmith was frequently mentioned in newspaper reports of the time as accompanying Mrs. Eaton to society events. In 1919, Mrs. Nasmith gave a talk on literature to nurses at the Toronto General Hospital (the one where Nasmith Avenue now stands).

The 13 October 1920 Toronto Daily Star had an intriguing item regarding Dr. Nasmith “Safety week in Toronto has been marked by one tragedy, Col. Nasmith having been seriously wounded in the ambition by a bullet from a Lewis gun”. Around the same time, Dr. Nasmith left the employ of the city and after an unsuccesful attempt to become a candidate for the Conservative Party of Ontario, he became part of the engineering firm: Gore, Nasmith and Storrie. This firm was often engaged by the famed R.C. Harris to work on notable infrastructure projects of the time including the R.C. Harris Water Filtration Plant (more on R.C. Harris and George Nasmith – thestar.com). During the 1920s at least, the Nasmiths lived at Oriole Rd. near Upper Canada College.

On 16 February 1940, Mrs. Nasmith died at the age of 69, at their residence on Avenue Rd. Three weeks later, Dr. Nasmith who had been involved with the Red Cross for many years, was asked to travel to London to become the Deputy National Commissioner of the Canadian Red Cross Society in aid of the effort in the Second World War. He gave his services without salary. In November of that year, he resigned his post after friction with other members of the committee relative to who had authority in certain matters and returned to Canada.

At some point after 1940, Dr. Nasmith married Luella Victoria Hawkey. In 1955, Dr. Nasmith suffered a stroke that resulted in him spending the final 10 years of his life bed-ridden. He died on 28 November 1965 at Sunnybrook Hospital, aged 87 years. He is buried at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery Plot L, Lot 6.

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