Elora doctor’s daughter married Frederick Banting

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.


(This column continues last week’s subject, Elora’s 19th century doctors.)

Of the five doctors in Elora in the early 1870s, only two succeeded in sustaining their practices.

There can be no doubt that there were too many. Competition was cut-throat.

In 1872, Dr. William Middleton’s local colleagues circulated a rumour that he was retiring. In defense, Middleton published a denial in the local newspapers.

The Elora doctors had a population base in the village of about 1,600. They served patients in the adjoining townships, but shared the clientele with other physicians in Salem, Alma and Winterbourne.

Dr. John Finlayson, Elora’s first physician, wound down his practice in the early 1870s. It appears that his own health was not good. He had relinquished his job as postmaster and ceased advertising for patients.

Dr. W.R. Pentland struggled during his six years in Elora, attempting to establish himself financially. Over this time he was involved in three different drug stores, and moved his office and residence several times. He also had problems with his own health. In 1875, he bailed out, selling his Elora practice to a Dr. Irvine. Pentland moved to Chatham, where he purchased a drug store. Dr. Irvine barely had time to unpack his Gladstone bag. He closed up the practice after six weeks and left town.

The end of Middleton’s career in Elora was scandalous to himself and embarrassing to the well respected Middleton and Allan families. His once-prosperous practice had taken a nosedive in the late 1860s, when he lost many of his patients to the younger doctors in Elora. His training, in the 1840s, had been under the well-known Dr. William Clarke, of Guelph, but Clarke was a far better politician and businessman than a doctor. By the 1870s virtually no one considered him to be a competent doctor.

Middleton’s wife, the former Henrietta Allan, inherited money from her father, but this soon ran out. In August 1875 (the same month that Pentland left Elora), Middleton moved his medical practice to Guelph, and put his house and other parcels of real estate up for sale. After three months, he had no offers for his real estate, and few patients in Guelph. He was 60 years old with little income, his only assets some heavily-mortgaged property.

For some reason he decided to move to Indianapolis. He made the fatal error of announcing his intention in advance. His creditors got wind of his plans and Middleton was arrested at the Grand Trunk Railway station in Guelph, and taken to jail. The complainant was Thompson’s livery stable in Fergus. Middleton owed the owners $130 (equal to about $2,760 in 2014 dollars) for horse and carriage rentals. Other creditors came forward, including his laundress.

The revelations caused a sensation in Elora and elsewhere in the county. Elora’s sharpest lawyer, George Drew, succeeded in getting him released without trial. It is likely that Middleton’s relatives and friends pooled funds to satisfy the creditors.

In any case, after the slight delay Middleton reached Indianapolis in November 1875, but the following March he was back in Canada, making plans to set up a medical practice in Eden Mills.

This left Elora with two doctors, Arthur Paget and William Savage. Dr. Paget, who came to Elora in 1859, retired to Toronto in 1909 after an even 50 years of medical practice, a record of longevity that still stands in Elora. Paget never played a prominent role in the village, though in his younger years he was active in the Rifle Company and played cricket enthusiastically.

Dr. William Savage’s career in Elora spanned only 28 years, but his was the larger practice. His first years were not easy. His office was located in a small building, long vanished, on the site of the Elora Legion. He lived at Helen McDonald’s boarding house. Helen’s circumstances changed somewhat when Dr. Savage married her daughter, Penelope. In 1872, Savage purchased the house at the southwest corner of Colborne and Melville Streets (45 Colborne St.). He moved his office to the house, and later built a wing at the rear that he used as an infirmary.

Savage’s infirmary functioned as an informal hospital. He could keep patients there overnight when they needed extra attention, and he had facilities for performing operations. Savage was the first university-trained doctor in Elora, and he kept up with advances in the medical field.

Savage’s mother-in-law, Helen McDonald, lived with the family, and she probably acted as a cook and nurse. The household included two teenage servants and a boarder, teacher Robert Gibb, formerly a lodger at Helen’s boarding house. The Savage property was considered one of the finest in the village. Savage was an enthusiastic horticulturist, and in 1876 he bought an additional lot so that he could expand his garden.

In 1893, Savage sold his practice and moved to Guelph, where he continued his medical career until 1921. He then retired to Vancouver; he died in 1923 at the age of 77. His successor, Dr. James Nairn, conducted his medical practice from the Colborne Street location until 1914.

There was one more 19th century Elora doctor: William Robertson, who began his practice in 1892 after graduating from the McGill medical school in Montreal. His residence and office were located in the house at the southeast comer of David and Geddes Streets (249 Geddes St.). There are many people who remember Robertson as a kindly and generous physician.

His greatest fame, though, came through his daughter Marion, who married Frederick Banting, the discoverer of insulin. Robertson played a large part in the Bantings’ sordid divorce proceedings in 1932.

It would be unfair to conclude a discussion of medical practitioners without mentioning Salem’s doctor. J.W. Griffith began practicing medicine in Salem in the 1860s, when the hamlet seemed to have good prospects for becoming a town of some significance. Although little is known about Griffith, he was a man of some literary ability. His fictional writing was serialized in the Elora Observer beginning in 1868.

Griffith achieved some prominence in May 1874, when he investigated a rumour of smallpox in Salem, and prevented its spread through Salem and Elora. He discovered that a tradesman who had partially recovered from the disease had stayed in a Salem hotel. There was an epidemic of smallpox at his time through the area. At least 73 cases were diagnosed in Peel township, and by the end of the month several people had died.

Griffith and other local doctors arranged vaccinations, and hundreds of people lined up. Locally, the epidemic was limited to a single case in Elora.

Soon after the smallpox epidemic Griffith moved to Fergus, and later to Ottawa. In 1882, he married there. What made this marriage exceptional was that the good doctor already had a wife of 23 years, as well as nine children, living in Fergus.

He was arrested for bigamy and protested that he had a divorce and was sending his first family money from Ottawa. The judge found Griffith’s arguments unconvincing and sentenced him to three years in the Kingston Penitentiary.

The wise, learned, selfless small-town doctor has become a major figure in Canadian mythology, but he does not appear until relatively late in the 19th century. The first Elora doctors to fit this image are Savage and Robertson, both university trained physicians, who kept up with the rapid advances in medicine during their active careers.

The earlier doctors received rough-and-ready, haphazard training, often as an apprentice to a practicing physician.

There was not fixed length to the training, and the medical field was overpopulated with all sorts of impostors and practitioners of eccentric theories of medicine, in addition to conventional practitioners, who varied enormously in their abilities.

Physicians in the 1860s did not command the respect they would have 30 or 40 years later. Indeed, a disproportionate number of the early doctors found themselves embroiled in scandal or legal troubles.

Doctors Middleton and Griffith had their counterparts in most communities.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on May 24, 1994.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015