“The advocacy of John Counsell, who suffered a spinal injury in the 1942 Dieppe Raid, led to the 1st Electric in the 1950s.”
For fans of the iconic popular quiz show “Jeopardy,” this was just another question on a recent TV show.
But, for those interested in Hamilton’s story, words are much more than that.
The correct answer phrased as a question, per Jeopardy rules, was, “What is a wheelchair?”
But who was Lieutenant John Gibbons Counsell of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, an officer with a crippling wound that nearly killed him on the beaches of Dieppe 80 years ago? And what did it have to do with the development of wheelchair technology?
As I learned, electric wheelchair innovation is only part of the story.
His most enduring legacy is that he led a movement that fundamentally reshaped the way people with spinal cord injuries were treated in Canada after World War II. He was a paraplegic who led other paraplegics to a better life and, among other honors, he was made a member of the Order of Canada for doing so.
“He transformed institutional life into community life,” says Peter Athanasopoulos, the director of public policy for the charity Spinal Cord Injury Ontario. “He pushed people out into the community instead of living in hospitals for the rest of their lives.”
Counsell was a man who fought for his country, and as a civilian he continued to fight against incredible personal adversity and on behalf of others with spinal cord injuries.
He was part of a group of people – which included physicians Dr. E. Harry Bottrell and Dr. Albin Jousse, fellow paralyzed veteran Ken Langford and Toronto Maple Leaf principal owner Conn Smythe – who led a “ new Canadian approach…that has revolutionized the life experiences of people with spinal cord injuries”, according to the academic article “The Canadian revolution in the management of spinal cord injuries” by Mary Tremblay, “disability historian” from McMaster University.
New treatments, technologies and procedures reduced mortality rates for spinal cord patients to 10% in 1946, from more than 80% during World War I, according to the article published in the University of Toronto Journal in 1995.
Through it all, Counsell was the go-getter and inspirational leader who had vision, strength of character, fundraising acumen and management skills.
I have written many retrospective stories of the disastrous August 1942 raid on Dieppe which claimed the lives of nearly 200 Rileys. As a spectator reporter, I traveled to the coastal city of France in 2017 with members of the RHLI for the 75th commemoration of the event.
I have attended many annual ceremonies at the Dieppe Monument on the Beach Strip in Hamilton and have written obituaries when the last survivors have passed away in recent years. I even wrote a song and put together a video for the regiment’s 150th anniversary titled Private Riley.
Yet I had never heard the story of Counsell, who died in 1976. Retired captain and RHLI historian Tim Fletcher – who saw the February 25 episode of Jeopardy with Counsell’s question and told me spoke – says he knew very little about the Dieppe veteran until more recently.
There are so many stories of bravery and sacrifice of soldiers from the RHLI and other Canadian regiments in Dieppe. But, as he and I discovered, Counsell was truly an inspiration.
He was born in 1911 in Hamilton into a prominent and wealthy family. His father, John Leith Counsell, was described in the Dictionary of Hamilton Biography as “one of Canada’s most famous criminal lawyers, but he was also known as a ‘worker’s best friend’ for his work in the criminal justice business. injury compensation”.
As a youth, John Sr. was a star athlete and joined the Hamilton Tigers football team, playing halfback and leading a previously faltering team to an Ontario championship.
Young John Counsell attended Ridley College in St. Catharines for high school but did not go to college, concentrating on a career in the insurance industry until the outbreak of war when he joined the Rileys and went overseas.
After being shot in the lower back on the beach at Dieppe, his fellow soldiers managed to carry him to the last landing craft to leave. He ended up at the Canadian Neurological Hospital in Basingstoke, England, and was eventually transferred to the Montreal Neurological Institute before moving to Toronto where he lived with his family.
Counsell, who was one of approximately 250 spinal-injured Canadian veterans returning from overseas, was initially severely depressed. But after befriending crippled jockey Jimmy Darou, he began to see some possibilities. Darou was notable for his optimistic resilience and enjoyed running a gas station business.
Counsell found a special collapsible wheelchair developed in the United States that could be carried in the trunk of a car, and he learned to drive an automobile with manual controls. So pleased with his growing ability to get around, wealthy independent Counsell ordered more special wheelchairs to donate to other disabled veterans.
In 1945, he co-founded the non-profit Canadian Paraplegic Association, known today as Spinal Cord Injury Canada. It was the first organization in the world founded and run by people with spinal cord injuries.
“One of my favorite subjects is the life of John Counsell and the role he played in the creation of our organization,” says Bill Adair, current CEO of Spinal Cord Injury Canada.
“It was 76 years ago (that the paraplegic association was created) and we still support people with spinal cord injuries.”
Also in the 1940s, Counsell and his team worked to establish the world’s first spinal injury rehabilitation center, the Lyndhurst Center in Toronto. The center paved the way for other treatment centers across the country which include facilities today operated by Hamilton Health Sciences in Hamilton.
Counsell, frustrated with the lack of information and support regarding his pension, also played a role with Canadian Legions and veterans groups in convincing the federal government to create the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1944.
Later, he focused on promoting an electric wheelchair by approaching inventor George Klein of the University of Toronto who worked on the project through the National Research Council.
It was an innovation that improved the lives of countless people.
So, you might be wondering: did any attendee guess Jeopardy’s electric wheelchair question?
No, unfortunately not. It seems they were as ignorant of John Counsell’s story as all of us.