MITCHELL, ROBERT MENZIES, teacher, physician, office holder, politician, and asylum superintendent; b. 28 Oct. 1865 in Port Union (Toronto), Upper Canada, son of James Mitchell and Elizabeth Rodgers (Rodger, Roger, Rogers, Royce); m. 17 July 1892 Margaret (Margret) McKinnon in Badjeros, Ont., and they had two sons; d. 6 Feb. 1932 in Weyburn, Sask.
The son of Scottish immigrants who took up farming in Port Union, Robert Mitchell attended public schools in Orangeville and graduated in 1886 with a teacher’s certificate. After working as a teacher for three years, he studied medicine at Trinity Medical School in Toronto, earning his md and cm (master of surgery) in 1892. That year he married Margaret McKinnon, also of Scottish ancestry, and they moved to Dundalk, where Robert began his career as a physician and the couple had their two sons, Robert Chester and Donald James.
In 1899 the Mitchells migrated west to the District of Saskatchewan in the North-West Territories. The family first stopped at the settlement of Indian Head, where Robert took the examination that allowed him to practise medicine in the region. They then settled in the almost uninhabited locality of Weyburn, southeast of Moose Jaw, where he opened an office and drugstore. For a time Mitchell was the only physician in the roughly 170 miles between Moose Jaw and North Portal, a village on the American border, and the only one on the section of the “Soo” rail line that ran between Moose Jaw and Minot, N.Dak. In 1901–2 he served as the Canadian Pacific Railway’s quarantine inspector for this route.
By 1902 other physicians had moved into the area and Mitchell no longer had quite as heavy a workload, but his practice in Weyburn continued to flourish and he earned himself a sterling reputation. Along with his brother John Alexander McCall, who had also made the trek westward, Mitchell encouraged people to settle permanently in the region. He became very active in the community, chairing the local public-school board for ten years and then the high-school board for five. In 1904 and 1907 he was elected mayor of the town of Weyburn, which would become a city in 1913.
Mitchell retired from his medical practice in 1907 and devoted his full attention to politics in the newly created province of Saskatchewan. The next year he was elected as a Liberal to the Legislative Assembly for Weyburn. He would represent the riding for 11 years, serving mostly as a backbencher in the governments of Thomas Walter Scott and William Melville Martin*. Mitchell chaired the standing committee on private bills and railways for six of those years and was deputy speaker of the assembly in 1916. He was well respected across party lines and popular with his fellow mlas, and in 1917 they made him speaker, a position he held for two years. Like many Canadian families, Mitchell’s was touched directly by World War I: Robert enlisted in October 1914 and served with the 28th Infantry Battalion, while Donald was conscripted, following the passage of the Military Service Act by Sir Robert Laird Borden’s Unionist government, less than a month before hostilities ceased.
In 1919 Saskatchewan’s second mental hospital, designed for up to 900 patients and 120 staff, was under construction in Weyburn, and the Martin government chose Mitchell as its first superintendent. Upon receiving this appointment, he resigned his seat, having served in the legislature longer than all but four other sitting mlas, including George Langley and William Ferdinand Alphonse Turgeon*. Because he possessed only an md and cm, Mitchell needed further training in psychiatry. To begin this education he took up a residency at Saskatchewan’s first mental hospital, located in North Battleford, to study the treatments used by its superintendent, Dr James Walter MacNeill*. The Weyburn hospital opened on 20 Dec. 1921, and by 1 May the following year it held 607 patients, most of whom had been transferred from North Battleford. To treat them, Mitchell relied on then-standard “work and water” methods of occupational therapy and hydrotherapy, which included hot and cold baths.
Mitchell worked energetically as superintendent for ten years. He was primarily interested in efficient hospital administration, about which he corresponded frequently and over a long period with Dr Charles Arthur Baragar of the Brandon asylum in Manitoba. Mitchell did not, however, care to discuss mental-health matters. He repeatedly declined invitations from Dr MacNeill to attend conferences, and when letters arrived at Weyburn seeking his medical advice or asking questions about mental health, Mitchell had them answered by the assistant superintendent. When asked to speak to the Weyburn Rotary Club in 1923, Mitchell chose to give a talk on hospital administration rather than a subject relating directly to his patients. In the late 1920s Dr Clarence Meredith Hincks* did a survey of Canadian mental hospitals, and while he noted 14 “points of excellency” at the Weyburn facility, mostly relating to its appearance, he also found 54 “points of defect,” among them overcrowding and staff shortages.
After the Liberal government of James Garfield Gardiner* was defeated in June 1929, Mitchell resigned and returned to his private medical practice. Eight months later he was summoned to court for having allegedly embezzled over $900 from Weyburn’s X-ray department. Because it had the most advanced X-ray equipment in the area, regional doctors sent patients there and directly paid the hospital for the service. Mitchell, who had taken the collected money once a month and deposited it in a trust at a local bank, was charged with corruption and theft. He was found innocent, but by October 1930 the Conservative government of James Thomas Milton Anderson* had levelled new charges against him. This time he was accused of maladministration, specifically patient abuse and politically biased hiring practices (there was some evidence to support the latter allegation), as well as interfering with police affairs. After a lengthy cross-examination by lawyer John George Diefenbaker*, Mitchell was again exonerated. The two trials had nevertheless taken their toll; less than two years later Margaret found her husband dead in his office at the age of 66. The cause was reported as heart failure.
Although he was beset by legal difficulties late in his life, Robert Mitchell never tired of helping his adopted western community, and he was willing to provide leadership in a variety of occupations. Whether he was acting as a physician, educational activist, politician, or hospital superintendent, it is clear that Mitchell dedicated much of his life to building up Weyburn and the surrounding region.
PAS, S-PH.3 (Dept. of Public Health), A.1(a), Corr. of Superintendent R. M. Mitchell with McNab, Minister of Public Works, 1923–26; A.10, Corr. of Superintendent R. M. Mitchell with Superintendent Baragar, Brandon Mental Hospital, 1921–23. Leader-Post (Regina), 8 Feb. 1932. Morning Leader (Regina), 16, 25, 26 March 1919, 1, 26 March 1930. Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, 16, 17 Oct. 1930. Weyburn Rev. (Weyburn, Sask.), 7 Nov. 1923. John Hawkes, The story of Saskatchewan and its people (3v., Regina, 1924), 2. Under the dome: the life and times of Saskatchewan Hospital, Weyburn (Weyburn, 1986).