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O’BRIEN, LUCIUS JAMES, physician, editor, and civil servant; b. 26 July 1797 at Woolwich, England, eldest son of Captain Lucius O’Brien of the Royal Artillery and Mary Callender-Campbell; d. 14 Aug. 1870 at Ottawa, Ont.

Raised at Cork, Ireland, where his father was employed as a paymaster of the Ordnance Department, Lucius James O’Brien began the study of medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1812. He received his md in 1819; his thesis, entitled “De amaurosi,” dealt with the loss of sight without visible cause. He had meanwhile joined the Royal College of Surgeons of London in 1817 and the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh in 1818. O’Brien interned at the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, where he made a life-long friend, Sir Robert Christison, later professor of materia medica at Edinburgh. Christison once helped O’Brien disentangle himself from two duels after a student drinking party.

After graduation O’Brien established a practice at Cork. He married Rosalie Roche in 1822, and soon afterwards, for financial reasons, went to Jamaica as the assistant surgeon, later surgeon, of the Kingston Regiment. He also established a private practice in Kingston. William Canniff* has written of O’Brien’s heroism during Sharpe’s slave rebellion in 1831–32 but the story cannot be substantiated. O’Brien’s wife died in 1825, and in 1830 he married Elizabeth Lindo (1801–94) of Constant Spring; there were several children by his two marriages.

In 1832 he decided to join his brother Edward George* in Upper Canada and settled at York (Toronto). He was licensed to practise in September. In 1833 he moved to Thornhill where he “soon had a large, if not very remunerative practice.” While at Thornhill he helped, ironically, to establish a temperance society and he was appointed a magistrate of the Home District in 1837. He also became a member of the Upper Canada Medical Board; when it was replaced by the short-lived College of Physicians and Surgeons from 1839 to 1841, he acted as secretary and registrar.

Meanwhile, the rebellion of 1837 had brought O’Brien back to Toronto as a military surgeon. He again attempted to establish a practice in that city, was unsuccessful, and moved west to Beachville in Oxford County. By this time he was in serious financial difficulties brought on by drinking, but in July 1845 he wrote Edward stating: “I have in truth forsworn the baneful cause and for eighteen months been strictly a teetotaller, knowing that no half measures will avail. . . .” Lucius had also been trying for a chair at the university in Toronto since 1839 and in September 1845, the year after the medical faculty was formed, he was rescued from his difficulties by his appointment as professor of medical jurisprudence, a post he held until the faculty was abolished in 1853. He was a member of the board of trustees of the Toronto General Hospital (1847), a vice-president of the Upper Canada Bible Society (1840–53), a member of the editorial board of the Upper Canada Journal of Medical, Surgical, and Physical Science (1851–54), and was active in the Toronto Medico-Chirurgical Society.

O’Brien also became editor of the Toronto Patriot, which Edward purchased in 1848, until he disagreed with his brother over content and retired. Samuel Thompson*, who was the manager, described him as a “highly educated and talented, but not popular, writer.” There seems to be no basis for Canniff s statement that Lucius edited other papers.

By the mid 1850s, with both editorship and professorship gone, his practice unremunerative and his money, as Nicholas Flood Davin* asserts, lost through injudicious speculations, O’Brien was again in trouble. He was saved by the patronage of Inspector General William Cayley*, who obtained a secretaryship for him in his office in 1856. From that post he transferred to the Customs Branch in 1857, moved to Ottawa with the government in 1865, and at confederation was placed in charge of the books of the Excise Division, a post he held until his death.

Christison summed up his career: “O’Brien had his good parts, was a diligent prominent student, and in the hospital an acute observer and sound practitioner. Strange! sadly Strange! that the life of such a man should prove a failure.” Though he was an affable person, a lively conversationalist, and a man of considerable ability, O’Brien’s intemperance would appear to have frustrated his varied attempts to establish a successful career.

Frederick H. Armstrong

L. J. O’Brien was the author of “On syncope, asphyxia and asthenia” and “On the non-contagious nature of scarlatina” in Upper Canada Journal of Medical, Surgical, and Physical Science (Toronto), I (1851–52), 7–10, and II (1852–53), 121–25, respectively.

MTCL, William Allan papers, City of Toronto and Lake Huron Railroad Company papers, 29 July 1846. PAC, RG 16, A4, 15, p.1. PAO, Toronto City Council papers, 21 Aug. 1847. [Robert Christison], The life of Sir Robert Christison, bart. (2v., Edinburgh, 1885–86), I, 113, 122–24; II, 289–94. Documentary history of education in U.C. (Hodgins), X, 208–20. [M. S. Gapper (O’Brien)], The journals of Mary O’Brien, 1828–1838, ed. A. S. Miller (Toronto, 1968), xvi, 172, 190, 205. Samuel Thompson, Reminiscences of a Canadian pioneer for the last fifty years; an autobiography (Toronto, 1884), 189. U.C., House of Assembly, Journal, 1839–40, I, app., “Minutes of the council of King’s College for the year 1839,” 379–81, 385. Ottawa Citizen, 12 May 1891. Ottawa Times, 15 Aug. 1870. Chadwick, Ontarian families. The roll of pupils of Upper Canada College, Toronto, January, 1830, to June, 1916, ed. A. H. Young (Kingston, Ont., 1917). Wallace, Macmillan dictionary, 556. Canniff, Medical profession in U.C. Davin, Irishman in Can. Heagerty, Four centuries of medical history in Can. Donough O’Brien, History of the O’Briens from Brian Boroimhe, AD. 1000 to AD. 1945 (London, 1949), 217–18.

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Cite This Article

Frederick H. Armstrong, “O’BRIEN, LUCIUS JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 24, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/o_brien_lucius_james_9E.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/o_brien_lucius_james_9E.html
Author of Article:   Frederick H. Armstrong
Title of Article:   O’BRIEN, LUCIUS JAMES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   February 24, 2024