If there's a great romance of 19th century B.C., it's the marriage of Irish-born missionary doctor Robert Tomlinson and 17-year-old Alice Woods Tomlinson who rowed as newlyweds in dugout canoes from Victoria to the Alaska border in 1868.

Born to a prominent Dublin family in 1842, Tomlinson studied medicine at Dublin University. His father was a Protestant minister and his brother was a doctor in the British army. Preferring not to write his final exams in order to concentrate on missionary work, he sought to serve at the Christian mission village of Metlakatla established on the northern B.C. coast by William Duncan. Tomlinson arrived in British Columbia in 1867, the same year the United States purchased Alaska from Russia. Delayed in Victoria, he fell in love with 16-year-old Alice Woods. Prior to his marriage, Tomlinson was sent north of Metlakatla by William Duncan to help establish the village of Kincolith on the Nass River, across from Alaska. A year later he paddled 700 miles from Kincolith to Victoria with six Aboriginals in dugout canoes in order to marry Alice, the privileged, Irish-born daughter of a well-to-do Victoria family. They made the return trip in three weeks in the same canoes. She had her first four children on the coast.

The Tomlinson's first child, Robert Tomlinson, Jr., was born in 1870 at Kincolith. He has been identified as the first white child born on the northern coast of B.C. In 1879 the intrepid medical missionary took his wife and children to live north of Hazelton in the Kispiox region to establish a community similar to Metlakahtla. In order to cross the wire bridge constructed over the raging Bulkley River at Hagwilget, Alice Tomlinson crawled its entire length. In doing so, she became one of the first doctor's wives to accompany her husband beyond the coast. For four years the Tomlinsons lived at Ankitlas, 17 miles north of Hazelton, where Tsimshian shamans undermined Tomlinson's efforts. Their wilderness home consisted of four rows of logs covered by a tent that was opened for church services. When Tomlinson was ordered by the Anglican bishop Dr. Ridley to abandon his experiment at Ankitlas, he obstinately appealed this decision to the Anglican Church Missionary Society in London. To do so, he left his family, trekked 120 miles to the Nass River, travelled across Canada by train, and made his appeal in person. He succeeded. In Ankitlas, Alice Tomlinson was pregnant three more times, giving birth to two more children. Her sixth child, born in 1882, died when its papoose fell from the ceiling and the infant suffered a fractured skull. In the spring of 1883 the Tomlinsons accepted defeat, having succeeded only in building a brick factory and a school.

Dr. Robert Tomlinson St. was one of the first western-trained doctors to practice medicine beyond Barkerville. For 46 years he practiced medicine and surgery among Aboriginals and never charged for his services. He died in 1913. Mount Tomlinson in north-central B.C. is named in his honour, as is the area along the Kispiox River called Tomlinson Flats. Robert Tomlinson Jr. also became a doctor and recorded some of his family's history in northern B.C. when he was a doctor at the Hazelton hospital in 1920. He spent his entire life in northern B.C. and died at age 89 in 1959. A Methodist pastor from Ketchikan, Alaska, wrote, "I say with deepest sympathy that he was one of the greatest men I ever expect to know. He was great by every test I wish to make... Heaven has much more attraction to me because he is now there."; Tomlinson Jr.'s widow Roxie Irene Tomlinson was 62 when her husband died. She spent many years compiling letters and documents, and writing the family history. When she died in 1984, at age 87, her son George Tomlinson-whose father Robert Tomlinson Jr. had been age 54 when he was born-discovered a trove of first hand information about the Tomlinsons among the Tsimshian, Nisga'a and Gitskan Indians.

With the assistance of co-writer Judy Young, George Tomlinson published an historical novel, Challenge the Wilderness, based on the extensive documentation about his grandfather and grandmother. [See George Tomlinson entry]


In defence of the controversial missionary William Duncan, Robert Tomlinson Sr. published "A Reply to the article on Metlakahtla in the Church Missionary Intelligencer of September, 1885." His 44-page work was published in Victoria by Munroe Millar in 1887.

Tomlinson, George & Judy Young. Challenge the Wilderness: A Family Saga of Robert and Alice Tomlinson Pioneer Medical Missionaries (Great West Publishing and Distributing Company, Inc. Anchorage, Alaska. 1991) 0-937708-34-8

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2003] "Medicine" "Early B.C." "Missionaries"