ALMON (Allmon), WILLIAM JAMES, physician, surgeon, and apothecary; b. 14 Aug. 1755 in Providence, R.I., son of James Almon and Ruth Hollywood; m. 4 Aug. 1785 in Halifax, N.S., Rebecca Byles, eldest daughter of the Reverend Mather Byles, and they had six children; d. 5 Feb. 1817 in Bath, England.
Little is known of William James Almon’s life until 1771, when he was apprenticed to Andrew Anderson, a physician in New York City. With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Almon joined the British forces, where he probably received additional medical training from William Bruce, physician with the hospital staff. He is supposed to have tended the wounded at the battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. The next year he went with General Sir William Howe’s forces to Halifax, later serving with them at the capture of New York City. On 18 June 1778, ten days before the battle of Monmouth, he was appointed surgeon’s mate to the 4th battalion, Royal Artillery, and about 1780 he was sent to Halifax to be surgeon to the Ordnance and artillery garrison there. He retired from the latter post some time after 1800, but retained the honorary position he had received as surgeon general to the Nova Scotia militia. While serving as a military surgeon, Almon established after 1783 a private practice which was to become the largest and most popular in Halifax. In 1785 he was appointed, at £60 a year, physician to the poor-house, which also served as the civilian hospital. At one point he was reputedly the only qualified surgeon in the town, and during one year he assisted at more than 100 births. His last years were spent in a joint medical and pharmaceutical practice with his son William Bruce*.
Almon’s diagnoses and treatments were practical for the age, being soundly based on the latest scientific theories. He used inoculation with smallpox extensively, one of his few failures being with his first-born son in 1787. Although his father-in-law humorously referred to him as the “System-Monger,” he respected his expertise when Almon’s autopsy on Byles’s second wife revealed that she had died not from a diseased liver but from “the pernicious Practice of lacing & girding herself too tight.”
Much of Almon’s medical knowledge derived from his extensive private library, since he was a well-read man with keen scientific interests. During the 1790s he served as vice-president of the local society for the promotion of agriculture, and he also belonged to an exclusive literary, scientific, and social group often patronized by Prince Edward Augustus. Following a visit to the United States in 1815, Almon apparently contemplated publishing his impressions of America, but the project was abandoned when the manuscript was lost.
During the residence of Edward Augustus in Halifax Almon served as physician in ordinary to the royal household, along with Duncan Clark and John Halliburton. The prince particularly cited him for prompt medical attention when he injured himself by a fall from his horse in 1798. The doctor and his wife were also reputedly members of the royal social circle in Halifax.
In 1816 ill health forced Almon to undertake a two-year visit to England; he died while in Bath and was buried there beneath St James Church. His widow, who returned to Nova Scotia, claimed that “seldom has there been domestic Happiness so uninterrupted as ours.” Although the provisions of his will were adequate, she noted that “my beloved Husband was too Benevolent & too Hospitable to leave me Rich.” The Halifax press commented, “His goodness of heart and kindness of disposition will cause him to be long remembered & loved.” Not easily forgotten either were the many anecdotes told of the doctor’s amusing absent-mindedness. His wife related how in March 1785 she could only gaze “in silent astonishment” when Almon, after using her new pen as a tooth-pick, broke it in two. Almon’s most enduring contribution to the colonial scene, however, was his founding of the long line of distinguished physicians and civil servants in Nova Scotia who bore his surname.
A portrait of William James Almon by Robert Field, done c. 1810, is in the collection of Mrs H. M. Carscallen (Ottawa) and Mrs C. R. T. Cunningham (Toronto). Rebecca Almon also had her portrait done by Field at the same time, but the whereabouts of the work, said to be one of Field’s best female portraits, is unknown.
W. K. Kellog Health Sciences Library, Dalhousie Univ. (Halifax), W. J. Almon, commonplace book. PANS, MG 1, 14, 163; MG 100, 101, no.45. Vital record of Rhode Island, 1636–1850; first series, births, marriages and deaths; a family register for the people, comp. J. N. Arnold (21v., Providence, R.I., 1891–1912), 2, pt.1: 208. Halifax Herald, 23 Dec. 1896.