28 November 2017




Since we are entering the season of sniffles, sore throats and clever flu-shot campaigns, I thought a dose of African Canadian medical history would be a welcome remedy at this time of year. For many Blacks arriving in Upper Canada in the nineteenth century, a career as a physician was implausible due to systemic barriers that either restricted access or denied entry all together. However, a select group of individuals successfully crossed the medical colour line, and went on to hold prestigious posts within the profession and within their communities. Today, this post spotlights Toronto’s first Canadian-born Black doctor, Anderson Ruffin Abbott.

Anderson Ruffin Abbott, Photograph 1863, from the Toronto Public Library Anderson Ruffin Abbott Papers Source.
Abbott was born to one of the few prominent Black families in Toronto during the 1830s. His family’s affluence afforded him certain privileges including education at the highly-respected (and racially-integrated) Buxton Mission School in the Elgin Settlement located near Chatham.  In the 1850s, he studied at the Toronto School of Medicine as well as Oberlin College in Ohio, and a decade later the Medical Board of Upper Canada granted him a medical license to practice.

Like the many free people and freedom-seekers before him, Abbott’s story is transnational. At the onset of the Civil War he put his practice on hold, and returned to America in order to serve. Initially he was denied a position as an assistant surgeon, despite having the necessary qualifications and experience. He later reapplied and was awarded a civilian surgeon contract. Abbott described his reason for serving as

“I am a Canadian… first and last all the time, but that did not deter me from sympathizing with a nation struggling to wipe out inequality.”

He described the war as a “struggle between beautiful right and ugly wrong.” Abbott returned from the Civil War and continued to fight ugly wrongs in Canada. Notably, he was an active leader in his community who advocated for racial integration in Upper Canada. This November marks the 125th anniversary of the naming of Abbott as Aide-de-Camp on the Staff of the Commanding Officers Department in New York. This position was the highest military honour ever bestowed to a person of African descent in either Canada or the United States.

Passport of Anderson Ruffin Abbott, 1863 from the Toronto Public Library Anderson Ruffin Abbott Papers Source.

His transnational commitment to equity calls us all to reconsider the boundaries of our circles of influence.


Bunch, Adam. (2017). The Toronto Book of the Dead.  Dundurn. 

Dictionary of Canadian Biography - Abbott, Anderson Ruffin. 

The Canadian Encyclopaedia - Anderson Abbott http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/anderson-abbott/

The First Black Doctor in Canada : Anderson Ruffin Abbott

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