Harrison, Tillson Lever
Tillson Lever Harrison, physician, surgeon, army officer, adventurer (b at Tillsonburg, Ont 7 January 1881; d near Kaifeng, China, 10 January 1947). Also known as a writer, raconteur and humanitarian, Tillson Harrison has been touted as Canada's second Norman BETHUNE and the model for Indiana Jones.
In his mid-teens, Harrison joined the 22nd Oxford Rifles militia, later moving to New York to enlist in the US Army Engineers for service in the bloody Philippines pacification following the defeat of Spain in 1898. Stricken with Asiatic cholera, he returned home and after his recovery attended University of Toronto Medical School, taking advantage of funds that his grandfather had set aside for his education. He married Sybil Edna ("Teddy") Wilkin in 1905, and after graduation in 1907 moved with her to Alberta as a country doctor.
The couple settled in Lac Ste Anne where, on contract to the HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY, he treated the local CREE community, which supplied furs to the HBC. Always restless, Harrison moved his family to Washington and Idaho, before becoming a county doctor in Drewsey, Oregon, as well as pharmacist, mayor, developer and rancher. In one instance, he delivered a healthy baby by caesarian section to a woman with a history of epilepsy in a filthy mountain shack and wrote a paper on the experience, "Cesarian [sic] Section Under Difficulties," published in the journal of theAmerican Medical Association in July 1912.
Harrison and his wife had one daughter, Rosalind Elfrieda, born in 1909, but the demands of fatherhood proved too much for his restless nature and he left Oregon - and his family - for London in 1913 to do postgraduate work in obstetrics and gynaecology. When hostilities broke out in Europe, he went to Belgium to lend his talents to the war effort. There, he met a Turkish woman, Eva Zambounis, a dancer and linguist working as a Red Cross nurse, whom he married (without divorcing Teddy) and with whom he travelled to the United States to settle in El Paso, Texas, in 1915.
Shortly after, Harrison journeyed to volunteer as Chief of Medical Staff to the notorious revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa. Harrison was captured by a band of fighters led by Villa's sworn enemy, General Venustiano Carranza, and was sentenced to be shot but, being the only available doctor, was spared when the general took ill. Harrison kept the general in a state of "near-recovery" until he could escape. Returning to El Paso, he provided salient military information pertaining to border security to General Frederick Funston, commander of US Forces on the Mexican border. Harrison's report, included in Funston's assessments for the Secretary of War, resulted in the release of thousands of troops for employment in the war then brewing in Europe.
He and Eva lived among the Mormon community of southern Utah for some months before moving north to Calgary, Alta, in 1917, where Harrison joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps for service in France. He was seconded to the British Army and put in charge of a hospital ministering to the needs of the Chinese Labour Corps. He learned the customs and language of this unique unit of some 200 000 men, loaned by their government to the Allied war effort, skills that stood him in good stead for future work in China. The Chinese Labour Corps built the redoubts and railways, brought up ammunition and carried stretchers among its other tasks, and keeping the corps' men healthy was a prime concern of the war planners. Harrison, treating bilharzia, catarrh, tuberculosis and other ailments, reduced "sick parade" numbers significantly over the winter of 1917-18.
After the war, Harrison travelled around the Middle East, at one point operating an X-ray unit in Lydda, Palestine (now Lod, Israel), and later a hospital in Constantinople treating venereal diseases. Although not legally divorced from Eva or Sybil, he married a Maltese, Filomena Abela, in Alexandria in 1920. Adventure followed the newlyweds when, on their honeymoon, the train on which they were travelling was derailed and ambushed by Syrian irregulars intent on killing a group of politicians travelling to a postwar conference on spheres of influence. Filomena suffering a broken leg during the derailment, which Harrison attended to. She walked with a limp for the rest of her life, a remnant of Harrison's quick action to prevent sepsis and possible gangrene.
While in charge of the Constantinople hospital, Harrison eloped with one of his patients, who happened to be the wife of a Turkish officer, but was captured, tried for breach of conduct and deported back to Canada via New York. He jumped ship in Morocco and made his way to Ireland, where he masqueraded as a Catholic and joined Michael Collins's Free State Army.
Harrison left the Irish Army to work among Welsh coal miners suffering from silicosis and married Eva Olwen Bowen (in 1923, and again bigamously), the daughter of a Cardiff carpenter, later travelling with her to the Caribbean, where their marriage disintegrated. Harrison worked in various capacities from 1930 to 1938 - as a medical officer in the Cayman Islands, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Trinidad, British Guiana, Ecuador, Venezuela, Honduras, Jamaica, for the Panama Canal Company in the Canal Zone, and in Panama for a mining concern, in Mexico and Morocco, and at Perim Island near Aden in the Red Sea - before moving to China to establish a practice in Shanghai. For a year, he served as physician to a guerrilla army fighting the Japanese, his activities paralleling those of Dr Bethune, who died in 1939 while on campaign with another unit.
From 1941 to 1946, Harrison was ship's doctor aboard the Blue Funnel Lines steamer Demodocus, ferrying food and medical supplies to Allied forces all around the Indian Ocean on behalf of Lord Louis Mountbatten's Southeast Asia Command. Demobilized after the war, he saw an opportunity to assist UNRRA (the United Nations Relief and Reconstruction Administration), but had to falsify his records to subtract seven years from his date of birth in order to qualify for service.
In one instance during this period, a truck convoy into the Chinese interior under Harrison's command was strafed by Kuomintang warplanes. The American "China Lobby" of Henry Luce (Time, Life, Fortune) had been urging the US Congress to assist the Kuomintang in fighting the communists, even though it was frequently UNRRA that lost large numbers of personnel and material in often futile rail or truck convoys into bandit territory. On another occasion, he posed as a US army officer to conceal 90 students hidden in the hold of a barge. A Kuomintang commander was about to search the vessel and had the students been found they would have been executed immediately as suspected communists.
Harrison, who died in the village of Hotse in central China, is remembered as a hero in that country, but is virtually unknown in Canada. The Chinese government has erected monuments to him, built hospitals in his name and produced films and picture- and colouring-books honouring his service to China and its people.
With all his faults, Tillson Harrison remains an example of a Canadian hero, suffering and dying to save the lives of others. In 1988, to mark the centenary of his birth, Prime Minister Brian MULRONEY sent a message to the Chinese Ambassador extolling Harrison's contributions to bettering the lives of the people of China. Interestingly enough, owing to Harrison's previous misrepresentation of his date of birth, the centenary was celebrated seven years after the proper date.