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SCOTT, JOHN, surgeon; b. in Strabane, County Tyrone (Northern Ireland) in 1816; d. between June 1864 and May 1865.

John Scott apprenticed as an apothecary at the age of 15 and in 1835 received a medical certificate from the University of Edinburgh. On 24 May 1841 he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, London. Shortly thereafter he immigrated to Canada, and in 1844 married the daughter of John Roaf, a Congregationalist minister and a prominent commissioner of the Toronto Lunatic Asylum. Between 1844 and 1850 Scott established in Toronto a reputation as a competent medical practitioner of temperamental disposition. With the support of his father-in-law, he was appointed in 1850 medical superintendent of the new Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto at a salary of £300 per annum.

The old Toronto asylum, established by William Rees* in 1841, had been struggling under chaotic administration for nine years and the appointment of Scott, who was untrained in diseases of the mind, met with strong opposition from the city’s Reform press. The Globe implied that nepotism was involved and that Scott had “neither the temper, the experience, nor the enlarged mind” necessary for the post. In 1851 these objections were partially vindicated when the Legislative Assembly received a petition from an attendant at the asylum charging Scott with malpractice and maladministration. Although the subsequent investigation sustained Scott against the charges, he was found “wanting in kindness and consideration” and possessed of “a natural infirmity of temper.” In November of the same year it was discovered that Scott had dissected a body and buried the parts in two separate coffins. Although dissection was becoming popular in mid century psychiatry, Scott’s methods and attitudes caused an outcry in Toronto’s daily press for his removal. He was censured severely by the asylum’s board of commissioners and narrowly avoided dismissal.

By 1852 the provincial asylum under Scott’s administration was suffering from an inordinately high death rate, overcrowding, and a deficit which the legislature was reluctant to assume. At this critical period Scott was forced to leave his duties as superintendent to consult with the Ordnance Department in Montreal and Quebec, probably regarding the asylum’s need to acquire more land. In October 1852 further trouble erupted when Scott intercepted a defamatory letter from Malcolm Cameron*, a Clear Grit member of the assembly, to the clerk of the asylum. Scott took the letter to the premier, Francis Hincks*, for redress, but instead was indicted before a grand jury for tampering with the mails. Although a “true bill” was returned the government did not prosecute him.

A bill to reorganize the administration of the asylum was passed by the legislature in March 1853, and Scott was officially allowed to resign, effective 1 July 1853. It was clear that his position had become completely untenable: the managing board was racked with dissension, Roaf had lost his influence, and, with the proposed reorganization, the government clearly indicated it wanted a new superintendent. Soon after leaving the lunatic asylum Scott was appointed to the staff of the Toronto General Hospital. His tenure there was equally unsettled, although, as a junior staff member, he was less open to attack. He was associated at the hospital with a medical clique, including W. R. Beaumont* and E. M. Hodder*, that feuded with a rival faction led by John Rolph. Scott and his colleagues were also charged with condoning “filth” and “cruelty” in the hospital wards.

In September 1855 Scott was appointed associate coroner for the city of Toronto by the ministry of Augustin-Norbert Morin and Allan Napier MacNab. The pathological work of a city coroner probably appealed to Scott and he served in this capacity until 1864 without serious incident. However, public objections that coroners were “using too much enthusiasm” in their medical examinations served as a reminder of Scott’s earlier inclinations toward extensive autopsy. In December 1863 Scott briefly disappeared and Toronto police were unable to locate him. He returned to perform his last inquest in January 1864, only to vanish again.

It was not until the following year that the grisly details of his death were revealed. In May 1865, after the spring break-up, a hunter found Scott’s decomposing body in a marsh near Ashbridge’s Bay (now in Toronto). At the subsequent inquest, a witness testified to having seen Dr Scott sitting on the ground on the east side of River St sometime in June 1864; upon returning the same way he found Scott gone. It was presumed that the doctor, “who had been addicted to the excessive use of intoxicating drinks for a couple of years before,” had fallen into the Don River and drowned. Only the contents of the pockets had enabled Scott’s son William to identify his body. It was a macabre end to a macabre career.

A. W. Rasporich and I. H. Clarke

Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, Journals, 1850–53. Globe, 1850–65. Leader, 1860–65. Canniff, Medical profession in U.C. The institutional care of the insane in the United States and Canada, ed. H. M. Hurd (4v., Baltimore, Md, 191617), IV.

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Cite This Article

A. W. Rasporich and I. H. Clarke, “SCOTT, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/scott_john_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/scott_john_9E.html
Author of Article:   A. W. Rasporich and I. H. Clarke
Title of Article:   SCOTT, JOHN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   March 28, 2023