REES, WILLIAM, physician and surgeon; b. c.1800, son of Evans Rees of Bristol, Eng.; d. unmarried 4 Feb. 1874 in Toronto, Ont.
William Rees studied medicine in England under Sir Astley Cooper and came to Canada in 1819. He was assistant health officer at the port of Quebec until 1822 when he was commissioned to take medical charge of transport to England. In 1829 he moved to York (Toronto) and, after examination by the Medical Board of Upper Canada in January 1830, he purchased the practice of John Porter Daly. With the exception of a brief sojourn in Cobourg in 1832 Rees lived the rest of his life in Toronto. In 1834 he advertised a course of lectures which he hoped would form the beginning of a school of medicine. He ran unsuccessfully in the first riding of York for election to the Legislative Assembly in that year. During the Upper Canadian rebellion he was appointed surgeon to the guard-ship at Toronto and assistant surgeon to the regiment of Queen’s Rangers.
Rees advocated throughout his career numerous measures for social reform and the development of public service. When he began his practice in Toronto he advertised that he would vaccinate the poor and give them medical advice free of charge. In 1837 he constructed a wharf and public baths on the waterfront at Toronto for the use of immigrants. At various times he promoted the establishment of an orphans’ home, a female aid society, sailors’ homes, a juvenile reformatory, an industrial farm, an institution for the treatment of alcoholics, a military and marine frontier force for defence and to provide training for indigent juveniles, a humane society to reward heroic rescue acts and to punish cruelty to animals, a medical dispensary and vaccine institution for the poor, a provincial board of prison and sanitary inspectors, a provincial museum with botanical and zoological gardens, and new waterworks and a street railway for Toronto. Primarily as a result of his efforts, the Provincial Lunatic Asylum was established in 1841 and he was appointed its medical superintendent.
Before taking up his appointment Rees toured Europe at his own expense consulting authorities on institutions for the care of the insane and on the latest methods of treatment. Until an asylum could be built an old jail was used to house the insane under Rees’ care. The number of inmates was initially 17 but it grew rapidly, and a wing of the vacant parliament buildings and a house had to be used until the asylum was ready for occupation.
In the course of his duties Rees received a blow on the head from one of the inmates, an injury which left him with greatly impaired eyesight and incapable of performing his duties or returning to private practice. He was replaced as superintendent of the asylum by Dr Walter Telfer in 1844 and thereafter lived in semi-retirement in his cottage on the waterfront adjacent to his wharf. He wrote frequently to the government seeking a pension in compensation for the time spent in organizing the asylum and for the injury he had suffered, or proposing administrative reforms and an appointment for himself in connection with the proposed changes. Although he had the support of a majority in the legislature, his efforts to obtain a government appointment were unsuccessful and the only compensation he received was a lump sum of $1,000 in 1864.
Many of the administrative reforms he suggested were ultimately implemented. His contemporaries, however, held divided opinions about him. Dr Christopher Widmer* was opposed to his appointment as superintendent from the outset and informed Robert Baldwin* that Vice Chancellor Robert Sympson Jameson* of the Court of Equity had “smuggled him into office.” “The cure of the insane,” Widmer asserted, “should certainly be consigned to a practical man with a philosophic knowledge of the treatment of insanity.” Even before Rees’ injury, Widmer was urging his dismissal and in 1851 opposed the attempt to obtain a pension for Rees as “the most impudent effort ever projected.” In a memorandum prepared for William Canniff*, Clarke Gamble stated that Rees “was a learned man on some things, but an eccentric and most sanguine man,” and added “he was appointed to the superintendence and management thereof upon the principle, I suppose, of setting a madman to watch a madman.” On the other hand, Rees’ superintendence of the asylum was commended by a number of British and American medical authorities and Henry Scadding* informed Canniff that “he was of a speculative disposition, and a man of unusual intelligence.” In supporting his application for a pension the Dominion Medical Journal referred to him as “one of the oldest and most respected practitioners in this Province.”
William Rees, The case of Doctor William Rees, late physician to the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, Toronto, C.W.: memorial to his excellency the governor general in council . . . (Quebec, 1865). MTCL, Baldwin papers, entries for Christopher Widmer. PAC, RG 5, C1, 1841–42, nos.1982, 2392, 2642, 2884, 3418, 3424, 4167, 4505, 4643A, 5095, 5120; 1846–47, nos.16587, 17398; 1847–48, nos.17997, 18467, 18817, 19837, 20053; 1849, no.467; 1850, nos.602, 669; 1851, nos.1506, 1667; 1852, no.1032; 1853, no.540; 1854, no.1528; 1857, nos.613, 1086; 1858, no.811; 1860, no.889; 1861, nos.229, 513, 682, 1004; 1862, nos.987, 1042, 1091, 1264, 1484; 1863, no.1470; 1864, nos.444, 819; RG 7, G20, 1843, no.2719; 1844, no.3473; 1855, no.6261; 1862, no.10139; 1865, nos.969, 1009, 1297, 12036, 12039; 1866, nos.575, 933; 1869, no.979 1/2. PAO, Toronto City Council papers, 1 June 1837; 5 June, 12 July 1843; 26 Dec. 1848; 3, 26 Nov. 1849. Canniff, Medical profession in Upper Canada, 570–73.