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TELFER, WALTER, physician and surgeon; b. Sept. 1800 in Hawick, Scotland, second son of William Telfer; m. Euphemia Denham, and they had one daughter; d. 7 March 1857 in Toronto.

Walter Telfer was sent “early in life” to Edinburgh “to learn the silk mercery business.” He later spent two years in Jamaica settling an uncle’s estate before entering medicine. In 1824 Telfer was licensed by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and immigrated to Stamford (Niagara Falls), Upper Canada. The following year he settled at Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake) and built a large practice which included the garrison, the district jail, and the poor. From 1832 he served as a medical officer, executing the regulations of the town’s board of health. Telfer joined others in 1832 in an unsuccessful attempt to secure the support of the Medical Board of Upper Canada for the formation of a professional medical society. He himself was licensed by the board in July 1833.

“Finding the field . . . too limited” at Niagara, Telfer moved in 1835 to Toronto, where he resumed practice. A contentious and ambitious figure, he publicly questioned the competence of other surgeons and signed a petition for the enlargement of the medical board. Despite his expressed interest, Telfer was not appointed to the enlarged board in 1836. He subsequently protested that since he was “the oldest practitioner in Toronto with the exception of Dr Widmer [Christopher Widmer] . . . the public will naturally infer that some improper conduct of mine must have been the cause that younger practitioners are preferred.” In 1838 Telfer was named to the board, where he acted as an examiner in surgery. Until his death he sat on successive bodies: the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Upper Canada and the reinstituted Medical Board. Telfer also served as an attending surgeon at the Toronto General Hospital, as physician to the St Andrew’s Society, and on the executive of the Toronto Medico-Chirurgical Society, the province’s first organized medical society.

Telfer wanted the prestige of office. From 1840, at each rumour that medicine was to be taught at King’s College (University of Toronto), he applied for a teaching position in surgery or anatomy. When the temporary Provincial Lunatic Asylum opened in Toronto in 1841, he petitioned to become medical superintendent but was passed over in favour of Dr William Rees*. In 1844 Telfer, Dr William Rawlins Beaumont*, and Dr Joseph Hamilton were appointed to report separately on the asylum and make recommendations for a permanent institution. Telfer criticized Rees’s administration and his frequent use of bleeding, blistering, and purgation – common medical practices which, in Telfer’s opinion, “would rather confirm than remove the disease.” In 1845, when Rees was dismissed, Telfer replaced him as superintendent.

Before taking up his position Telfer examined asylums in the United States and later joined the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutes for the Insane. This contact undoubtedly reinforced his belief in humane practice and current theories of moral treatment, which Rees had also adopted. Telfer reportedly accepted all sent to the asylum to save them from being “confined to Gaols where they are generally cruelly treated.” He eased overcrowding by moving some patients from the asylum to quarters in the parliament building which looked “more like a Boarding House.” Telfer continued Rees’s practice of prescribing opiates and sleep. He introduced manual labour therapy and emphasized the importance to recovery of moral instruction through such activities as religious services, reading, dancing and “every proper . . . Amusement.” During his tenure Telfer claimed a high rate of recovery.

Telfer’s work at the asylum was hindered by problems of staff discipline and internal authority about which he complained to the asylum’s board of commissioners. The asylum steward, Robert Cronyn, brought charges before the commissioners accusing Telfer of drunkenness and misappropriation of drugs and supplies. These charges led to Telfer’s dismissal in 1848. Refused a hearing “of a judicial character,” he answered the charges publicly in the newspapers. Telfer challenged several of the accounts, including that of Cronyn, who was later himself dismissed for drunkenness. Telfer accused the commissioners of ignoring his earlier complaints. He believed that some of them had conducted personal business with the steward while others wanted him replaced by their own candidate. Telfer’s defence, and the possible political influence of Dr John Rolph* in the controversial appointment of Telfer’s successor, Dr George Hamilton Park, sparked continued recriminations. The provincial assembly sent for the papers on Telfer’s case but no action followed.

Telfer returned to private practice and remained active at the general hospital. He spent time daily in “devotion, religious reading and meditation,” and remained a popular figure, respected for his charitable service and medical skill.

Geoffrey Bilson

Academy of Medicine (Toronto), ms 137. AO, RG 22, ser.155, will of Walter Telfer; ser.305, Euphemia Denham [Telfer]. Niagara Hist. Soc. Museum (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.), B.1, 1827–32 (mfm. at AO). PAC, RG 5, A1: 56425–27, 65996, 65998, 70569–70, 88245–47, 88253–55, 92151–52, 113393–95; B9, 62: 260, 262, 506; C1, 21, file 210; 56, file 3512; 99, file 4865; 133, files 8125–26, 8135; 139, file 5870; 167, file 11908; 178, file 13434; 201, file 16616; 223, file 20131; RG 7, G14, 10: 4611. Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, Licenses, 1824. American Journal of Insanity (Utica, N.Y.), 3 (1846–47): 87–88. Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, App. to the journals, 1849, app.GGG. Daily Colonist (Toronto), 10 March 1857. Gleaner (Niagara [Niagara-on-the-Lake]), 3 Oct. 1825; 21 April 1832; 20 May, 13 July 1833. Globe, 12, 16 Aug., 2, 20, 27, 30 Sept. 1848; 12 March 1857. Niagara Herald, 1 Sept. 1828. Patriot (Toronto), 11 July, 8, 15 Dec. 1835. Upper Canada Gazette, 11 June 1835. Laws of the Toronto Medico-Chirurgical Society, together with a catalogue of books in its library; instituted 17th June, 1844 (Toronto, 1845). Toronto directory, 1846–47: 73; 1850–51: 126; 1856: 230. Canniff, Medical profession in U.C., 63–65, 76–77, 85, 88–89, 107, 113, 164–65, 167, 213, 647–48. [G. H. Park], Narrative of the recent difficulties in the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Canada West; dedicated to the Christian community, and to the presiding officers of the lunatic asylums in Europe and America (Toronto, 1849). Robertson’s landmarks of Toronto, 1: 437–38.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Geoffrey Bilson, “TELFER, WALTER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 25, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/telfer_walter_8E.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/telfer_walter_8E.html
Author of Article:   Geoffrey Bilson
Title of Article:   TELFER, WALTER
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   September 25, 2023