ROBERTSON, WILLIAM, military surgeon, physician, office holder, jp, and educator; b. 15 March 1784 at Kindrochit, his father’s estate near Blair Atholl, Scotland, second son of James Robertson and Jean Stewart; m. 21 Jan. 1806 Elizabeth Amelia Campbell in Sydney (N.S.), and they had 12 children; d. 18 July 1844 in Montreal.
The son of a Scottish laird, William Robertson received his early schooling in Scotland and was appointed ensign in the 73rd Foot at age 13. The following year, as an officer, he saw action during the Irish rebellion. Between 1802 and 1805 he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, attending three sessions, but he did not graduate. He acquired a degree much later, in 1832 – honoris causa from the University of Vermont.
Following his studies in Edinburgh, Robertson accepted the post of ship’s surgeon for a voyage to New York and New Orleans. On 9 July 1805 he was appointed hospital mate for the army medical department in British North America. Late in 1805, when he was on his way to join the hospital staff, his ship was wrecked off the coast of Cape Breton and he narrowly escaped drowning. He found refuge in the home of William Campbell*, attorney general of Cape Breton. There he met Campbell’s daughter, whom he later married.
Robertson became an assistant surgeon in the 49th Foot on 23 Oct. 1806 and served in this capacity for more than six years. On 29 July 1813 he was promoted surgeon in the 41st Foot. He saw action in the War of 1812, accompanying his regiment to the Niagara frontier and assisting in December 1813 at the storming of Fort Niagara (near Youngstown), N.Y. In 1815 he was placed on half pay in Montreal as a medical practitioner. The following year he was commissioned a medical examiner for the district of Montreal, a nomination he would receive several times between 1816 and 1839.
When the Montreal General Hospital opened its doors in 1819, Robertson was the senior member of its medical staff. Not long afterwards he, the Reverend John Bethune*, Alexander Skakel, and others were appointed commissioners to oversee the construction of a new building on Rue Dorchester, completed in 1822. The first recorded operation in the new hospital, an amputation of the leg at the thigh, was performed by Robertson. In 1823 the medical officers of the hospital – Robertson, John Stephenson, William Caldwell*, and Andrew Fernando Holmes* – set up a school known as the Montreal Medical Institution. Robertson was its head and its instructor in midwifery and diseases of women and children. In 1829 the institution became the medical faculty of McGill College, and Robertson was appointed professor of midwifery and diseases of women and children, and official head of the faculty. (The title of dean was not used during his lifetime.) On the death of Caldwell in 1833 Robertson succeeded to the professorship of the theory and practice of medicine, a post he held until his retirement in 1842.
In 1818 Robertson was appointed a magistrate or justice of the peace. These officers were responsible for civic government in Montreal and, in particular, for keeping the peace during elections. On 21 May 1832, during a by-election in Montreal West contested by Daniel Tracey* and Stanley Bagg, fighting broke out at Place d’Armes, near the poll. Robertson, one of the two magistrates on duty at the poll, read the riot act. As the “riot” became more serious, troops fired into the crowd, killing three persons. Robertson was later accused of having ordered the soldiers to shoot. Although he was officially exonerated of any criminal act by the grand jury of Montreal, many, including Louis-Joseph Papineau*, continued to regard him as having abused his powers and thus of having been responsible for the “murder” of the three. Papineau’s accusations provoked Robertson to challenge him to a duel, which Papineau refused on the grounds that he was condemning Robertson for public, not private, acts. The bitterness remained and Robertson was no doubt an unpopular figure in some quarters. However, he must have enjoyed the confidence of many. In 1833, when government by city council replaced rule by justices, he served as a presiding officer at the first municipal elections. From 1836 to 1840 rule by justices was briefly reintroduced and he was again appointed a magistrate. Robertson was named to the first Board of Health in Montreal, established in 1832 to deal with an anticipated outbreak of cholera. Seven years later he was made a commissioner to provide a temporary asylum for the insane.
Illness forced Robertson’s retirement from all active work in 1842 and two years later he died. A memorial tablet was erected in the Montreal General Hospital and is still on display there. In 1894 his portrait, by an unidentified artist, was presented to the medical faculty by his family and descendants. It was destroyed by fire in 1907 but, using a photograph as a model, Robert Harris* painted another, which now hangs in the McIntyre Medical Sciences Building of McGill University.
ANQ-M, CE1-130, 22 juill. 1844. GRO (Edinburgh), Blair Atholl, reg. of births and baptisms, 15 March 1784. McGill Univ. Arch., RG 38, c.1, minute-book, 1823–33. PAC, RG 8, I (C ser.), 221; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841. Univ. of Edinburgh Library, Special Coll. Dept., Medical matriculation index, 1802–5. “The late Dr. Robertson,” Montreal Medical Gazette, 1 (1844–45), no.5: 146–47. Vindicator and Canadian Advertiser, 9 Dec. 1834. Commissioned officers in the medical services of the British army, 1660–1960, comp. Alfred Peterkin et al. (2v., London, 1968). Abbott, Hist. of medicine. W. H. Atherton, Montreal, 1535–1914 (3v., Montreal and Vancouver, 1914). Campbell, Hist. of Scotch Presbyterian Church. Ægidius Fauteux, Le duel au Canada (Montréal, 1934). S. B. Frost, McGill University: for the advancement of learning (2v., Montreal, 1980–84). R. P. Howard, A sketch of the late G. W. Campbell . . . being the introductory address of the fiftieth session of the medical faculty of McGill University (Montreal, 1882). H. E. MacDermot, A history of the Montreal General Hospital (Montreal, 1950). Taft Manning, Revolt of French Canada. M. E. [S.] Abbott, “Early American medical schools: the faculty of medicine of McGill University,” Surgery, Gynecology and Obstetrics (Chicago), 60 (1935): 242–53; “An historical sketch of the medical faculty of McGill University,” Montreal Medical Journal, 31 (1902): 561–672. F.-J. Audet, “Des hommes d’action à la tête de Montréal il y a 100 ans,” La Presse, 4 nov. 1933: 30. E. H. Bensley, “William Robertson, M.D., first official head of the McGill medical faculty,” Montreal General Hospital News, 17 (1978), no.2: 9–10. E. A. Collard, “The man who hoaxed Sir John A. Macdonald,” Gazette (Montreal), 13 Oct. 1984: B2. R. W. Quinn, “The four founders,” McGill Medical Undergraduate Journal (Montreal), 5 (May 1936): 5–11. R. F. Ruttan, “Dr. William Robertson,” McGill Univ. Magazine (Montreal), 1 (1902): 178–79. “Sixty-first convocation of the medical faculty of McGill University,” Montreal Medical Journal, 22 (1894): 775–89. B. R. Tunis, “Medical licensing in Lower Canada: the dispute over Canada’s first medical degree,” CHR, 55 (1974): 489–504.