Dr. McQuibban a remarkable figure in Wellington

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


Though it has now largely disappeared, Wellington County once had a strong tradition of doctors who became involved in politics.

Some of these medical men contributed in major ways to their communities. Others are best described as eccentrics. One of the last of the tradition, and a man who fits comfortably in either category, was Dr. George McQuibban of Alma.

He was born in Ingersoll in 1886. At age 3, the family moved to Harriston, where George’s father worked in the milling business. When he finished high school, George enrolled in the medical school at the University of Toronto, following in the steps of his brother James, who was four years older.

In 1913 the McQuibban brothers returned to Wellington County. They purchased the medical practice of Dr. Norman Wallace at Alma. Founded by Norman’s father, James, in 1866, the practice served a large area of Peel, Nichol and Pilkington Townships.

George and Jim McQuibban, the bachelor doctors, expanded the practice further. At one point they employed three drivers with cutters and buggies so that they could visit country patients at any time of the day or night. In 1927 George bought the first snowmobile in the Alma area to speed up his winter visits to patients.

There was no drug store in Alma, so the brothers were able to supplement their income by selling medicines. In their spare time they pursued numerous hobbies and interests, becoming pillars of the Alma community.

They spent hours planting the garden around their residence, and specialized in roses. George had more energy and wider interests than Jim. For example, in the 1920s he rented a farm and established a stable of race horses.

Women’s softball became hugely popular in North Wellington in the 1920s. George McQuibban did as much as anyone to promote it. He sponsored the Alma team, and built a ball diamond for home games. In the late 1920s he installed floodlights. Reputedly, this was the first ball diamond in rural Ontario to be so equipped.

An even greater fascination for George was wildlife. He established an aviary on his property, and at one point cared for about 300 birds, some of which were rare species. The aviary involved so much work that he hired someone to look after it.

In 1926 the Liberal party approached George to stand as its candidate in the riding that was then known as West Wellington.

McQuibban’s personal popularity was enhanced by his solid support of the prohibition movement, which was particularly strong in north Wellington in the 1920s.

The Ontario Liberal Party had sunk to a low point. Out of power since 1905 and decimated by defections to the United Farmers of Ontario, the Liberals could not offer a credible alternative to the Conservative government headed by the wily Howard Ferguson. As well, the Liberals were divided on the liquor question.

Voters re-elected the Ferguson government, but West Wellington bucked the trend, sending Dr. McQuibban to Queen’s Park with a solid 2,700 vote majority.

Ferguson had called the election as a referendum for his proposal to end prohibition in Ontario, and to introduce the sale of alcohol under strict government control. The North Wellington Prohibition League worked hard to elect Dr. McQuibban.

Though the Liberal party continued to stumble through the late 1920s, Dr. McQuibban did establish himself as a pillar of the caucus, and made friends on both sides of the legislature through his openness and honesty.

The uninspiring George Henry replaced Ferguson as premier and called another election in 1929. Dr. McQuibban returned, with a larger majority than he ran up in 1926. After years of stumbling, the Liberals decided it was time for a new leader, and they found one in 1930: Mitch Hepburn.

As a result of his popularity with his colleagues, George McQuibban became Liberal house leader at the beginning of 1934. Under the dynamic and colourful leadership of Hepburn, the tide began to turn for the party.

Fearing yet another trouncing, Hepburn wanted a moderate position on the liquor question as the 1934 election approached. Unfortunately for the party, there was still internal squabbling.

McQuibban led the dry forces within the caucus. It became obvious that he and Hepburn had major differences, both in their politics and their personalities.

In the session leading up to the election, McQuibban promised an all-out attack on the Henry government.

“This will be no political petting party,” he assured his caucus colleagues.

As house leader, McQuibban attracted the notice of the reporters for the major newspapers in the province, who portrayed him as a rustic and plain-spoken country doctor. He boasted to them that he had delivered over 3,000 babies. In the legislature, McQuibban, with his quiet and methodical style, was not able to put together a sustained attack and the Liberals entered the election campaign still divided.

Once the campaign was on, the Liberal fortunes skyrocketed. Hepburn, who was 38 and at the peak of his form, electrified the province with his attacks on George Henry’s extravagance, scandals and cronyism.

The Liberals took 70 seats to the Conservatives’ 17.

At home, in the redrawn riding of Northeast Wellington, George McQuibban rode at the crest of the tide, taking 10,300 votes, 5,000 more than Edward Boyd, his Conservative opponent.

Hepburn had tried to play down the liquor question. McQuibban, as he had in 1926 and 1929, made prohibition the central theme of his campaign.

Other points raised by McQuibban sound familiar to us today. He claimed the province collected five times as much in gasoline tax as it spent on highways, and he condemned government waste and inefficiencies.

At a rally in Arthur, he told a cheering crowd that he was no mere party hack: “Both Conservatives and Liberals are wrapped in the monied interests. What you want today are men who will be responsible to you, who have your business at heart.”

It was a message with a strong appeal to those who had voted previously for third party the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO) and Progressive candidates.

When he put his cabinet together, Hepburn passed over Dr. McQuibban. This is not surprising, because McQuibban had shown often that his own conscience took precedence over party loyalty. He further annoyed Hepburn in 1936 by voting with the Conservatives against a Hepburn bill to provide additional assistance to separate schools.

Meanwhile, George McQuibban continued his medical practice at Alma. His bother James left him in 1931 and moved to Elmira following his marriage to Marie Zilliax. In the 1930s it was still possible for an MPP to pursue an occupation; the spring and fall sessions of the legislature usually lasted only about six weeks.

George McQuibban complained several times that politics had cost him dearly in his medical practice, but he still devoted a large amount of time to his hobbies. By the 1930s his elaborately landscaped property included a log cabin and a Dutch-style windmill, and he maintained a kennel of Dalmatian dogs.

In 1935 Dr. McQuibban rescued a celebrated race horse, Mr. Gaiety, from the glue factory. He organized a civic reception for the quadruped when it arrived in Alma, and then provided an ample supply of hay and oats for its retirement.

The doctor’s menagerie included a pair of bear cubs, Mike and Ike. They caused a sensation one day in June 1936 when they escaped. More than 200 people chased them until they were recaptured in a tree.

Changes seemed to be in the offing when the legislature resumed in January 1937. Mitch Hepburn was absent, gone to Arizona to rest. McQuibban had long disapproved of Hepburn’s drinking bouts, womanizing and all-night parties. These had begun to affect the premier’s health, which was already shaky due to chronic bronchitis and kidney trouble.

There were rumours that Hepburn would retire, to be replaced by McQuibban’s friend Harry Nixon.

George McQuibban was not to participate in the roller coaster fortunes of the provincial Liberals. On Jan. 29, 1937 he suffered a severe heart attack, and died early the following morning at his room in the Royal York Hotel.

An emotional Harry Nixon praised McQuibban’s “outstanding ability and sterling character.” The Globe and Mail praised his “independent mind, never afraid to cut loose from party ties when he considered the interests of his riding paramount.”

Mourners crowded Alma’s Presbyterian Church for the funeral, and hundreds more milled around outside.

Dignitaries included Harry Nixon, most of the cabinet, former Premier George Henry, Conservative leader Earl Rowe, and about 50 members of the legislature, from both parties. Those standing outside recalled hundreds of favours performed by George McQuibban over the years. Poor families remembered medical bills he had forgotten to collect.

Hepburn recovered quickly from his illness, and did not retire for another five years. In a tribute, he noted that Dr. McQuibban had been the strongest proponent of public ownership in the legislature.

Expecting an early by-election, the Liberals began looking for a candidate. An obvious one was George’s brother, Jim.

The Toronto papers interviewed him, and he declared, “I am not a Hepburn Liberal.”

North Wellington Conservatives perked up when they read James McQuibban’s remarks. They quickly lined him up as a candidate,

At a meeting in Arthur he told the crowd that he would carry forward the “great standards” of his brother, and that George had told him that he would never have stood again for Hepburn, and had been considering switching his support to Earl Rowe. Rowe, who also addressed this meeting, stated, “Hepburn did not represent the better element of Liberals.”

Nervous about this by-election and Rowe’s attempts to blur party lines, and plagued by other problems, Hepburn did not set a date.

Then, in the fall of 1937, he called a snap general election after only three years in office.

Meanwhile, the Liberals had found a candidate in Ross McEwing of Maryborough. Hepburn won the election, including Northeast Wellington, which McEwing took by 1,800 votes. James McQuibban carried only East Garafraxa, West Luther, Grand Valley and Shelburne.

We can speculate on what George McQuibban’s fate would have been had he not died at the early age of 50. Was he serious about switching parties? What might his role have been in a post-Hepburn Liberal Party?

In any case, George McQuibban will always rank as an important figure in the history of Wellington, and a truly remarkable character. As the Toronto Telegram said after his death, “The McQuibban mould is broken.”

James McQuibban continued to practice medicine in Elmira after the 1937 election, retaining many friendships in the Alma area. He retired in 1955 and died on April 1, 1956.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Feb. 1, 1999.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015