FEBRUARY 28, 2004

Black History Month

Canada's famous first black doctor

Born in Toronto in 1837, Dr Anderson Abbott was a close friend of Abe Lincoln but refused to serve in the US Colored Troops

Not only was Anderson Ruffin Abbott the first black man to graduate from medical school in Canada (University of Toronto, 1861), he is described in a US history textbook as "probably the most famous British North American-born surgeon to serve coloured soldiers during the Civil War." He was also a close friend of Abraham Lincoln, whose widow presented him with the shawl Lincoln wore to his first inauguration.

Dr Abbott's father, Wilson, was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1801 to free parents but he eventually moved to Canada in 1835 to escape prejudice in the US. Wilson prospered in Toronto where he became an influential real estate dealer and city alderman. Anderson, who was born in 1837, studied medicine at the University of Toronto and graduated in 1861. While working as an intern, or medical licentiate as it was then known, in 1863 he petitioned President Lincoln to be allowed to join the Union Army.

He became one of only eight black surgeons serving, which brought him to the president's attention and led to their friendship. Dr Abbott, however, refused to serve in the United States Colored Troops — a segregated unit. Instead, he opted to work as a contract surgeon. He explained why in a 1907 letter, writing that he felt equal to operating on any man and that having been born in a land where all men are free, he was not going to submit to government-endorsed segregation. His heroic act had a negative side effect, though: because of his refusal to serve in the segregated regiment, his widow was denied a Civil War Widow's Pension.

Dr Abbott couldn't escape segregation in the civilian world. "Even though he didn't serve in that regiment, I'm sure that he still would only have been allowed to operate and treat blacks," says his great-great granddaughter, Catherine Slaney, of Hamilton, Ontario. She points out that when Dr Abbott worked in Canada it was at integrated hospitals but when he went to the US he had no choice but to work in segregated hospitals.

After the war he became surgeon in charge of the Washington Hospital until 1866, when he decided to return to Canada. He practised as a surgeon at the Toronto General until his marriage in 1871, when he moved to Chatham, Ontario. In addition to having a practice in that southwest Ontario city, he became the first black coroner in Canada. During the 1880s, he practised in Dundas, Ontario and in 1894 he returned to the US, moving to Chicago where he became the medical superintendent of the segregated Provident Hospital.

"While in Chicago," says Ms Slaney, "he set up the first nursing program for black women. The hospital was segregated, but this was the first time that black women were given the opportunity to study to become professionals." Upon retirement, Dr Abbott returned to Toronto where he died in 1913.

His son, Wilson R Abbott, also became a doctor and practised as a lung and heart surgeon in Chicago. But unlike his father, he wasn't relegated to a segregated black hospital — not because the laws had changed, but because he worked at a white hospital by passing. Anderson Abbott had married a woman from St Catharines, Ontario who was of mixed racial background. His son, Wilson, married a white woman and they and their descendents began to live as whites. Ms Slaney only learned that she was part black in 1975 at age 24 when she was approached by the Ontario Black History Society to ask about her great-great grandfather. No one had ever told her that half her family was black and, as she pointed out that at the time, "I didn't even know any black people." Her story and that of her black ancestor is the subject of her book Family Secrets: Crossing the Colour Line.



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