Claus Helmcken and his bride, Catherine Mittler, left Germany soon after they married to try to find a better life in London, England. They opened a tavern in Whitechapel, one of the city's most squalid East End communities, but did well enough to give their firstborn son, John, born June 5, 1824, a good early education.
John was a bright student and distinguished himself at St. George's English and German School, but his parents could not finance his education beyond grade school. In his memoirs, he gives a vivid and poignant description of the stigma he endured, both because of his poverty and his ethnic background.
He lived amid the social malaise so powerfully portrayed by Charles Dickens, and the story he tells of his early life rival some of the worst scenarios painted by the author.
By sheer hard work and grim determination, he put himself through his apprenticeship as an apothecary. In 1844, he entered Guy's Hospital in London as a medical student. After his third term, John's money ran out, so he secured himself a position as a surgeon onboard the Hudson's Bay Company ship, the Prince Rupert. This trip brought him to York Factory, Manitoba, his first experience of Canada. Returning to England, he had made enough money to complete his training at Guy's Hospital, pass all his examinations and become a fully qualified physician and surgeon, as well as a licensed apothecary.
But the wanderlust had entered John's bones and, in spite of several attractive offers in England, in 1848 he re-enlisted with the Hudson's Bay Company and spent 18 months onboard the Norman Morrison as ships' surgeon, giving him the opportunity to visit China, India and other exotic destinations.
He was offered a post at a new Company trading fort, which he eagerly accepted. And so, in 1850, Fort Victoria welcomed the 26-year-old Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken as its first resident physician. Here, he was destined to spend the next 70 years of his life as "the leading physician from San Francisco to the North Pole and from Asia to the Red River." He also served as Victoria's Coroner, Health Officer and Prison Doctor. In order to make some of his house calls, John learned to ride a horse and paddle a canoe.
However, he was off to a shaky start. He took an instant dislike to James Douglas, which could easily have resulted in his ruin. He regarded Douglas as aloof and opinionated, and wrote "he was of grave disposition, cold and unimpassioned."
Determined to make the best of a bad job, at least for a while, John threw himself wholeheartedly into his work. He equipped his office with a vast array of potions: Turlington's Balsam, essence of peppermint, purges of jalap and calomel, emetics of ipecacuanha and tartar. He also had "dragon's blood" in his inventory, but gives no indication what feat of daring he performed to obtain it!
Douglas sent him to Fort Rupert at the northern tip of Vancouver Island. He disliked the journey intensely, and the destination even more. He decided that when he returned to Victoria, he would ask Douglas for a posting back to England and to ask Governor Richard Blanshard to support his request. Upon returning to Victoria two years later, Douglas invited him to dinner. Helmcken decided this would be his opportunity to submit his resignation.
That night, John caught sight of Cecilia, the oldest daughter of James and Amelia Douglas, now a 17-year-old beauty and a far cry from the scrawny 15-year-old he remembered seeing briefly on his arrival. At once, all thought of leaving Fort Victoria vanished.
The two were married at Christmastime in 1852, in the middle of a blinding snowstorm, and built their home on a one-acre piece of land next door to the bride's father. Theirs was the happiest of marriages and, although they renovated and enlarged their home several times, they never had any desire to move to another location. Their home still stands as the oldest house in Victoria.
The doctor soon endeared himself to the settlers. The children loved him and nicknamed him "Doctor Heal-My-Skin." His ready smile put his patients at ease and his willingness to treat anyone in need, whether they could afford his services or not, was legendary. Emily Carr wrote, "You began to get better the moment you heard Dr. Helmcken coming up the stairs."
But his personal life had its share of sorrow. Two of his children died in infancy and were buried in the back garden; four others survived. However, it was while she was giving birth to her last baby that Cecilia took ill and died at age 30 after only 12 years of marriage. John was inconsolable. The light went out of his eyes and although he lived for another 50 years, he was never quite the same.
He had already entered the political arena and was among the Legislature's first members in 1856. He remained as Speaker for 15 years. Initially, John favoured a union between British Columbia and the United States. He felt a link with Eastern Canada would not serve the province well. Although he wavered in his opinion for a while, he became an outspoken critic against any form of Confederation within Canada. In spite of his views, but because he was such an influential man, the Governor chose him to negotiate British Columbia's terms of union in 1870 in Ottawa. On this journey, he travelled by rail through the United States. The feasibility of a cross-country railway system in Canada began to take shape in his mind, and he reached Ottawa a changed man. He argued well for the province and returned home excited by his triumphs. But this was not what Victoria had expected when they sent him to Ottawa as an anti-Confederationist. He was disappointed by the reception he received and retired from politics the following year, the year British Columbia became part of Canada. For his efforts, he has gone down in history as one of the "Fathers of Confederation."
Several attempts were made to draw him back into politics - he was offered the position of senator, Premier and lieutenant-governor, all of which he declined. For the next 40 years, John devoted himself to medicine. He was the founding President of the B.C. Medical Association, the prime mover behind the formation of the Medical Council and President of the Board of Governors of the Royal Jubilee Hospital.
John Helmcken was described as a man "short and slightly built, with deep, clear, intelligent eyes, in which there was self-confidence and critical discrimination, but no malice, and given to much laughter."
Of himself, Helmcken said he was "friendly with everyone, but never had [an] intimate friend." He died on September 1, 1920 at the age of 96.