LITTLE, JOHN MASON, surgeon and hospital administrator; b. 9 June 1875 in Boston, son of John Mason Little and Helen Beal; m. 24 Sept. 1911 Ruth Esther Keese in St Anthony, Nfld, and they had five sons and one daughter; d. 23 March 1926 in Brookline, Mass.
A tension between the privileges of a genteel mercantile family and the desire for personal accomplishment governed the life of Dr John Mason Little. His father, a businessman in dry goods and textiles, managed the considerable real-estate properties of his own father, and in 1916 he constructed the Little Building, a 12-storey edifice in downtown Boston. His mother’s family were founders of the Second National Bank of Boston. Little attended the Noble and Greenough School in Dedham until 1893, and in 1897 he took his ab at Harvard University. He then proceeded to its medical school, where he distinguished himself in surgery and earned his md in 1901. After an internship at the Massachusetts General Hospital, he travelled and studied in Europe, returning a year later to enter private practice with a classmate, Fred Townsley Murphy. He would also assist his former instructor, surgical pioneer Samuel Jason Mixter, at Massachusetts General.
Little’s early career seems to have been marked by self-indulgence. In 1907 he attempted to “cure” himself by volunteering to serve with the medical mission founded by Dr Wilfred Thomason Grenfell* at St Anthony, Nfld. Grenfell required a sound hospital administrator and a surgeon to carry out a full range of procedures, especially those associated with tuberculosis, the most devastating affliction in the colony. A keen outdoorsman as well as a bon viveur, Little revelled in the physical demands of the job, patrolling the Northern Peninsula by dog team in winter and sailing along the Labrador coast in summer. In short order, he gained recognition as one of the most competent surgeons in Newfoundland and transformed a pioneer hospital into a centre for advanced work. He wrote his mother with some self-satisfaction in June 1908, “I have not a doubt whatsoever that should I want to stay here I could have the whole surgical practice of Newfoundland in a not very long time.” Later that year, fearing that he would be lured to a more lucrative practice, Grenfell broke his fundamental rules of voluntary involvement and primary commitment to mission work and offered Little (a Unitarian) an annual salary of $1,000, which he accepted on the understanding that he would not have to participate in the mission’s religious activities.
Little now devoted himself to advanced surgical procedures he would not have had an opportunity to undertake had he remained in Boston. In one celebrated case, he performed a craniotomy on an epileptic patient, identified the epileptogenic focus by electrical stimulation, and removed the affected area, a portion of the motor cortex. Despite his surgical interests, he recognized, as did Grenfell, the greater need to concentrate on problems of public health, especially the prevalence of ailments, such as beriberi, caused by dietary deficiencies. Beriberi had first been identified as a tropical disease associated with a diet based on polished rice, but in northern regions, where wholewheat flour was often rejected as inferior, the same deficiency was seen to be produced by a heavy consumption of bleached flour. Though the theory of organic trace nutrients was still emerging in 1912, Little clearly understood it. On his suggestion, William Richard Ohler conducted experiments at Harvard in 1913 and 1914 which showed that chickens fed with white bread developed polyneuritis. Ohler concluded that, in a diet restricted to milled flour, necessary vitamins were absent and the chickens’ condition developed in a fashion similar to beriberi.
Almost from the beginning of his stay in St Anthony, Little had disagreed with Grenfell over the priorities of the mission and its weak organization. At the same time he did not share Grenfell’s necessary interest in promotion and fund-raising, though he would raise the money for a new surgical wing in 1910. When Grenfell published some of Little’s letters home without his permission, the surgeon expressed his frustration to his mother in June 1909: “I quite understand Dr. Grenfell’s attitude about advertising his work, and he is so constituted, and is so really simple that there is no harm about it, only good for other people and for the work. But I am not like Dr. Grenfell and cannot appear as a tin hero any more than I can lead prayers.”
By 1917 Little was ready to re-enter the medical community in Boston, where his father was prepared to back him. In addition to his differences with Grenfell, he had not been well for two years. The physical demands of his work had become increasingly difficult, and he had a growing family to consider. He tendered his resignation in June 1917 and left in October with his wife, an American who had taught at St Anthony, and their four children. He was subsequently appointed surgeon to outpatients at Massachusetts General, visiting surgeon to the Long Island Hospital, and instructor in surgical technique at the Harvard Medical School. He later became medical examiner of the New England Mutual Life Insurance Company and chief surgeon of the Boston and Albany Railroad. A fellow of the American Medical Association, he could not abandon the Grenfell mission altogether: he served as a director and president of the New England Grenfell Association and as a director of the International Grenfell Association. Tragically, he also developed a heart condition which he kept secret, even from his immediate family, and in the spring of 1926, at age 50, he died suddenly of pulmonary embolism combined with an inflammation of the heart muscle. His ashes were returned to St Anthony, where they were sealed in a rock face on Fox Farm Hill, overlooking the scene of his most productive and satisfying years.
The author is grateful for family history provided by John Mason Little’s grandson Thomas Mayhew Smith of Cambridge, Mass., who holds a collection of Little’s correspondence.
Little’s publications include two articles in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, “Kallak, an endemic pustular dermatitis” and “A winter’s work in a subarctic climate,” (158 (1908): 253–55 and 996–97 respectively); and three in the American Medical Assoc., Journal, (Chicago) “Medical conditions on the Labrador coast and north Newfoundland,” “Beriberi caused by fine white flour,” and “Beriberi,” (50 (January–June 1908): 1037–39, 58 (January–June 1912): 2029–30, and 63 (July–December 1914): 1287–90 respectively); and “From the records,” Grenfell Clinical Quarterly (St Anthony, Nfld), 4 (1987–88), no.1: 17–22 which is a record of a case of epilepsy in one of Little’s patients, transcribed in its entirety.
Mass., Secretary of the Commonwealth, Arch. Div., Registry of vital records and statistics (Boston), Birth certificate, 9 June 1875; State Dept. of Public Health, Registry of vital records and statistics (Boston), Death certificate, 23 March 1926.
PANL, GN 30/1, marriage records, 1891–1922: 24 Sept. 1911.
Yale Univ. Library, mss and Arch. (New Haven, Conn.), Wilfred Thomason Grenfell papers.
New York Times, 25 March 1926.
American Medical Assoc., Journal, 86 (January–June 1926): 1381.
D. N. B[lakely], “John Mason Little, m.d.,” Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, 194 (1926): 652–53.
Encyclopedia of Nfld (Smallwood et al.), 3: 345.
Graduates and members of the Graduates Association, 1867–1950 ([Dedham, Mass., 1950]).
Harvard Univ., Quinquennial catalogue of the officers and graduates, 1636–1930 (Cambridge, Mass., 1930).
W. R. Ohler, “Experimental polyneuritis: effects of exclusive diet of wheat flour, in the form of ordinary bread, on fowls,” Journal of Medical Research (Boston), 31 (1914–15): 239–46.
Ronald Rompkey, Grenfell of Labrador: a biography (Toronto, 1991)