[UPDATED] Black History Month, and the Canadian at Lincoln's deathbed

A few years back I came upon one of those historical footnotes that gets you thinking: after Abraham Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865, as he lay dying in a boarding house across the street from the Ford Theater, one of the small group that watched over him was Dr. Anderson Abbott, Canada’s first black physician.

Reading the Prime Minister’s statement today in recognition of Black History Month, my mind’s eye again created the tableau of Lincoln’s deathbed and the singular Canadian in the room.

Stephen Harper makes reference today to black Canadians who fought in the War of 1812 (thanks, Farandwide); last year, he reminded us of black icons ranging from a rodeo cowboy, to a newspaper owner, to Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins. All worthy of note, I hasten to agree.

But at the risk of hinting at a hierarchy of trailblazers, I can’t help wondering why we don’t hear more often about Abbott. What a story: a Toronto-trained black doctor who served with distinction in the Civil War, was befriended by the president, and returned to Ontario to forge an impressive medical career.

There’s a good biographical note on Abbott here, on the website of the Oxford African American Studies Center, which is headed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.


David Naylor, the current president of University of Toronto and a former dean of medicine at the university, sends a candid email, admitting that Abbott is “under-recognized” at U. of T., where he took some of his medical training, and stood for an examination in the discipline in 1867, two years before being admitted to Ontario’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.

“I heard nothing about Dr. Abbott in medical school in the 1970s,” Naylor writes, “and only encountered snippets about him later while doing thesis work at Oxford in social history of Canadian medicine and health policy.  In recent years, Abbott occasionally has been flagged by the Faculty of Medicine as a pioneering figure whom we proudly claim.  But frankly, he’s received limited profile, and I’m one of the culprits as a past dean.  Furthermore, so far as I can tell, Abbott isn’t mentioned in the 2001 official history of the University.”


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