Oronhyatekha (pronounced oh-ron-ya-TEK-a), a Mohawk born in 1841 on the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ontario, was the first native to earn a medical degree in Canada. But he was remarkable in many other respects, too: in an era when most ambitious aboriginals simply assimilated, he travelled the world without ever losing his Mohawk heritage and language (the only language permitted at his home in Deseronto, Ontario, was Mohawk), or his firm conviction that natives were equal to whites.
Oronhyatekha was 14 when a travelling American phrenologist, placing hands on his head, pronounced him educable and spurred him to leave the reserve for higher education. He studied at Ohio’s Kenyon College, where his phenomenal memory earned him top grades. After meeting an Oxford professor who was visiting Canada with the Prince of Wales in 1860, he decided to study at Oxford, and, to this day, a portrait of him in full Mohawk regalia can be found at that university. Back home, he married Ellen Hill (a descendant of Joseph Brant, the Mohawk chief and British ally against the Americans). He continued his education at U of T (where Prof. Daniel Wilson described him as a brilliant student). In 1866, he was awarded a medical degree, then practised as a doctor for about 15 years in several Ontario communities.
Then, as if these accomplishments were not enough, the doctor left medicine for another career, in 1881 becoming the supreme chief ranger of the Independent Order of Foresters (IOF), a worldwide fraternal organization that offers its members a variety of benefits, including affordable life insurance. Putting his unique stamp on this position, which he held for the rest of his life, he travelled the world to open branches of the IOF, whose members now number more than one million worldwide. Well before corporate branding became commonplace, Oronhyatekha heightened the international profile of the IOF – and of himself – immeasurably. And when he travelled, he did what any well-educated successful gentleman of that era did – he collected artifacts: Indo-Persian battle-axes, Australian boomerangs, Burmese drums, Japanese shoes and more than 1,000 specimens of marine shells and coral, along with native artifacts including a silver belt medal and compass owned by Tecumseh, an ally of General Brock.
Oronhyatekha’s death in 1907 was marked by a huge funeral procession and memorial service at Massey Hall, then a smaller service with Mohawk chants in Deseronto, where he was buried. Oronhyatekha and his wife, though they had several children, left no direct descendants. But his legacy lives in his collection, which was transferred to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in 1911. – Susan Lawrence
In 1869, Emily Stowe – who would become one of Canada’s first women physicians – applied to the University of Toronto to take classes in physiology and chemistry. When informed she was not welcome to attend, she declared, “The day will come when these doors will swing wide open to every female who chooses to apply.”
Stowe eventually went to the United States to earn her medical degree. But less than 15 years later, her daughter, Augusta, would help push open the university’s weighty doors. She attended Victoria College (which joined with U of T in 1892), becoming the first woman to graduate in medicine in Canada.
A shy teenager, Stowe (MD 1883 Victoria, MDCM 1887 Trinity) struggled through the medical school’s “friendless halls” and often cried herself to sleep at night. But she found a friend in classmate John Gullen, whom she married a week after convocation.
The newlyweds skipped their honeymoon to attend a postgraduate course in children’s diseases in New York. After returning to Toronto, Stowe-Gullen was appointed the first female staff member at the fledgling Ontario Women’s Medical College. Initially a demonstrator in anatomy, she quickly progressed to lecturer in children’s diseases, then professor of pediatrics, a position she held until the Women’s Medical College amalgamated with U of T in 1906. She ran a private practice out of her home and worked at the Western Hospital (her husband was a founder) – even delivering the institute’s first baby. She was also one of the first three women elected to the U of T Senate in 1911.
A member of Toronto’s beau monde, Stowe-Gullen kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about upscale Rosedale parties and charity euchres at McConkey’s – the swanky restaurant of the day. She was also fond of expensive, ornate dresses, and she and her husband were one of the first couples in Toronto to own a vehicle.
Throughout her life, Stowe-Gullen was best known as a champion of women’s issues, serving as honorary president of the Canadian Suffrage Association and a founding member of the National Council of Women. Two of her greatest sorrows were that her suffragist mother did not live to see the franchise for women, and that many of her peers took their hard-won voting privileges for granted. However, she never stopped fighting for female emancipation. In a National Council of Women speech, she echoed a creed she lived by: “[We] have always tried to find out what was wrong – and to right it.” – Stacey Gibson
Anderson Ruffin Abbott
In mid-19th-century Toronto, fetching a physician was somewhat of a last resort. Understandably so. An 1855 advertisement for a new medical establishment on Yonge Street announced: “Leeches applied, Cupping, Bleeding, and Teeth Extracted.” Nevertheless, medical training was rigorous and reserved for the privileged few.
Anderson Ruffin Abbott, born in Toronto into wealth and good social standing, studied at the Toronto School of Medicine and by 1860, at age 23, had graduated in medicine at the University of Toronto. He was granted a licence to practise a year later, and after several years of apprenticeship, in 1867 became the first Canadian-born black doctor.
He was also a poet, soldier, musician, lecturer and writer. His father, Wilson, was an influential real estate dealer who, by 1870, owned more than 75 properties across Ontario. Along with Abbott’s mother, Ellen, he advocated for black rights, buying slaves in order to free them and leading an 1840 delegation to Toronto city council to protest travelling minstrel shows.
Like his parents, Abbott was involved extensively in his community. Over the years he was the president of the Wilberforce Educational Institute, the Chatham Literary and Debating Society and the Chatham Medical Society. He also wrote regularly for local papers such as the Chatham Planet and the Dundas Banner, speaking out for black rights and condemning racial discrimination.
Abbott also served in the American Civil War, interrupting his training as a medical licentiate (the equivalent of an intern) to join the Union Army in 1863. Eventually accepted as a field surgeon, he was stationed at Camp Barker, Washington, D.C., one of only eight black surgeons to serve in the war. In the army, he faced almost as much racial discrimination as he fought. However, he won the recognition of Abraham Lincoln and became a great family friend.
In 1869, Abbott returned to Toronto and served as resident surgeon at the Toronto General Hospital. Two years later he married Mary Casey and opened a practice in Chatham, Ont. In 1874, he became the coroner for Kent County, also believed to be a first for a black. He spent his last years in Toronto, where he died in 1913. He is buried at a family plot in the Toronto Necropolis.
Obscured by time, Abbott remains an enigma. While he argued strongly against segregated education and other racial prejudice, it is unclear where he got the courage and confidence to do so. (He had more than his share of moxie, to judge from some of his writings. In 1869, a poem he wrote, asking for his wife’s hand in marriage, was published in the Toronto Globe: “I come not here/ With blandishment to woo thee,/ I know the secret of your heart,/ I know full well you love me.”)
For Rosemary Sadlier, president of the Ontario Black History Society, it was Abbott’s commitment to the black community as well as his medical achievements that make him stand out. “Sometimes people forget their origins,” says Sadlier, “but that was not something he was willing to do.” – Lisa Bryn Rundle
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