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Original title:  Photograph Dr. Robert Palmer Howard, Montreal, QC, 1886 Wm. Notman & Son 1886, 19th century Silver salts on glass - Gelatin dry plate process 17 x 12 cm Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd. II-80977 © McCord Museum Keywords:  male (26812) , Photograph (77678) , portrait (53878)

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HOWARD, ROBERT PALMER, physician and educator; b. 12 Jan. 1823 in Montreal, Lower Canada, son of Robert Howard, merchant, and Margaret Kent; m. first in 1855 Mary Frances Chipman, and they had one son; m. secondly in 1872 Emily Severs, and they had four children; d. 28 March 1889 in Montreal.

After leaving school and working for a short time in his father’s merchandise business, Robert Palmer Howard attended McGill College, receiving an md degree in 1848. Following graduation he studied in Dublin, London, Edinburgh, and Paris. In Dublin he took instruction from doctors Robert James Graves and William Stokes, an experience which contributed greatly to his subsequent success as a physician and educator.

Late in 1849 Howard returned to Montreal and commenced medical practice. The following year the Montreal Dispensary was founded and he was appointed one of its attending physicians. Howard’s outstanding career as an educator began modestly in 1851 when he became an instructor in chemistry at the St Lawrence School of Medicine of Montreal, a rival to the McGill medical faculty, which lasted only from 1851 to 1852. Howard then joined the staffs of the McGill medical faculty and its teaching hospital, the Montreal General. He was appointed demonstrator of anatomy and curator of the Medical Museum at McGill and an attending physician at the Montreal General.

Howard’s ability as a teacher was quickly recognized by rapid academic advancement. In 1854 he assumed the post of professor of medical jurisprudence and two years later the professorship of clinical medicine. In 1860 he relinquished these chairs to assume the professorship of the theory and practice of medicine, which he held until his death. At the Montreal General Hospital his exceptional abilities led in 1858 to his election as chairman of the medical board and secretary of the board of governors, offices which he occupied for 30 years. He was promoted to consulting rank at the Montreal Dispensary in 1864 and at the Montreal General Hospital in 1874. After the death of George William Campbell, Howard was in 1882 made dean of the McGill medical faculty, a post he held until his death. McGill University honoured him in 1886 by an lld.

His qualities of leadership were also appreciated beyond his university and hospital. He was president of the Canadian Medical Association (1879–80), president of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Province of Quebec (1880–83), and twice president of the Montreal Medico-Chirurgical Society (1872–73 and 1879–80). In all these posts he used his considerable influence to raise the standards of premedical and medical education not only in Montreal but throughout Canada. For example, he advocated a four-year medical course with annual sessions of nine instead of six months, an unusually high standard at that time. One of his deepest concerns was the introduction of a federal bill to establish uniformity of qualifications for a licence to practise medicine in the various Canadian provinces. Here his labours were in vain. Medical licensing was under provincial jurisdiction and Howard was frustrated by lack of agreement among the provincial bodies concerned. It was left to one of his students, Thomas George Roddick*, to achieve such an agreement in 1912, after prolonged and difficult negotiations.

Throughout his professional life, from 1849 until only two weeks before his death, Howard maintained an active medical practice. For many years he included surgery in it, but his talents did not lie in this field and in 1880 he withdrew from all surgical work. His reputation as a physician grew steadily and at the time of his death he was described as one of the leading consultants in Canada. He was as well an associate fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and a vice-president of the Association of American Physicians. His reputation was further enhanced by his publications. Howard was neither a prolific writer nor a highly original investigator but he did contribute sound articles to medical publications in Canada and the United States and was widely regarded as an authority on pulmonary tuberculosis and other diseases of the chest. His publications also shed light on such varied subjects as appendicitis, anaemia, heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver, nephritis, leprosy, tumours of the uterus, aneurysm of the aorta, and paralysis of the eye muscles.

Although Howard rendered distinguished service in many areas he is probably best remembered as a superb teacher. His lectures and instruction at the bedside were based on a thorough knowledge of medicine gained not only by practice but also by careful post-mortem examinations and familiarity with the medical literature. Combining enthusiasm with earnestness and dignity, he inspired his pupils with his own zeal and love for medicine. One of these pupils was William Osler*, who took every opportunity to express his admiration and affection for his former teacher. “I have never known one in whom was more happily combined a stern sense of duty with the mental freshness of youth.” After Howard’s death in 1889, both the Montreal General Hospital and McGill University commissioned Robert Harris* to paint memorial portraits of him, which they still display. Two of Howard’s sons, Robert Jared Bliss and Alan Campbell Palmer, became physicians, and the latter was to occupy many of the posts in Montreal previously held by his father.

Edward Horton Bensley

[In addition to his Notes on practice of medicine (Montreal, 1891), Robert Palmer Howard published a large number of articles in several Canadian and American journals from 1852 to 1889.  e.h.b.]

McGill Univ. (Montreal), Medical Library, R. P. Howard, Collected reprints, 1855–89. [William Osler], Selected writings . . . (London and Toronto, 1951), 191. Medical News, a Weekly Medical Journal (Philadelphia), 6, 13 April 1889. Borthwick, Hist. and biog. gazetteer, 376. Canadian biog. dict., II: 318–19. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose, 1888), 511–12. H. A. Kelly, A cyclopedia of American medical biography, comprising the lives of eminent deceased physicians and surgeons from 1610 to 1910 (2v., Philadelphia and London, 1912), II: 16–17. H. A. Kelly and W. L. Burrage, American medical biographies (Baltimore, Md., 1920), 567. Abbott, Hist. of medicine, 67, 70, 88. H. [W.] Cushing, The life of Sir William Osler (2v., Oxford, 1925). H. E. MacDermot, History of the Canadian Medical Association (2v., Toronto, 1935–58).

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Cite This Article

Edward Horton Bensley, “HOWARD, ROBERT PALMER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 8, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/howard_robert_palmer_11E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/howard_robert_palmer_11E.html
Author of Article:   Edward Horton Bensley
Title of Article:   HOWARD, ROBERT PALMER
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   June 8, 2023