Submitted by Brian Roulston
The practice of medicine in colonial Canada was governed by the French or British authorities. Medicine and surgery were two distinct branches of the profession. Physicians were regarded as the elite; they believed it was beneath them to operate; they received higher education, held the most significant posts, and earned the most money. Surgeons, on the other hand, generally acquired their training in the navy or army, or as an apprentice to other surgeons. There were more surgeons than physicians in Canada. With few exceptions, the first surgeons in the country were known as Barber-Surgeons and Apothecaries. They not only cut hair, they also performed surgeries. Many of these men, however, were dismissed as little more than quacks. Barber-Surgeons had to be adept with a saw and a blade to amputate limbs. They often set broken bones and extracted teeth using nothing more than a shot of whiskey, forceps or a pair of pliers. They also performed bloodletting, a practice that originated some 3000 years ago in Egypt. Leeches or a lancet, a small double-edged surgical knife or blade with a sharp point or a sharpened piece of wood were used to cut a vein. In the late 18th century, bloodletting was a panacea for various diseases such as smallpox, migraines, epilepsy and gout, as well as spiritual problems.
Surgeries were limited to the limbs and skin tissue. Deeper operations, such as appendectomy or a hernia repair, were extremely painful and resulted in serious infections, lasting impairments, or death due to the lack of anesthetics and of sanitation of medical instruments. Recovery was frequently more a question of luck or God’s will than of a surgeon’s or a physician’s skills.
During this period, Canada’s few hospitals took in the poor; they conducted very few procedures, the majority being performed in the patient’s home. Hospitals also turned away infectious patients and expectant mothers. Midwifery was thought a separate branch of medicine.
Early settlers were also afflicted by ailments that barber surgeons did not treat, such as rattlesnake bites, injuries, malnutrition, and malaria. Settlers frequently used homemade cures, often obtained from the farmer’s almanac. Newspapers advertised cure-all liniments, tonics, and elixirs that were essentially watered-down bourbon or brandy along with other ingredients. They all claimed to heal sore throats, gout, cholera, backache, stiff necks, and frostbite. Botanics based on Indigenous medicines were often used successfully. At first, when the United Empire Loyalists were driven from the American colonies, very few physicians were forced out. Gradually more and more competent army surgeons, mainly retired regimental surgeons and civilian physicians began moving into the area from the United States and from along the St. Lawrence River shoreline.
In 1798, Dr. Oliver Tiffany became the first licensed physician and surgeon to settle in the area and begin a medical practice. The presence of a trained medical practitioner must have come as a huge comfort to the early occupants of the Head-of-the-Lake. He would soon be joined by another doctor, William Case, often regarded as Hamilton’s first physician and surgeon.
Dr. Tiffany was born in Norton, Massachusetts in 1763. His father, Gideon, served alongside soldiers as a physician on the battlefield during the American Revolution. Before choosing medicine as his profession, Oliver Tiffany with his brother George taught at the first school ever established in Albany, New York. He graduated from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in 1786 and then went to the prestigious Philadelphia Medical College, where he practiced medicine until 1796. At 41, Oliver immigrated to Canada and settled in Grimsby before moving to Mohawk Road in Ancaster, where he opened his medical practice. The Tiffany family’s property is now known as Tiffany Falls, one of the premier tourist attractions in the area.
Dr. Tiffany served the Port of Hamilton, Dundas, Ancaster, Barton Township, Galt, and Guelph. His patients included Richard Beasley, Jean Baptiste Rousseau, Augustus Jones, Nathaniel Hughson, members of the Land, Ryckman, and Springer families. Many of the newborns he brought into the world were named ‘Oliver Tiffany’ in appreciation of Tiffany’s help. Dr. Tiffany passed away a wealthy man in April 1835. Six hundred people attended his funeral at St. John’s Church in Ancaster. Tiffany left his medical books to his brother George and his medical office furnishings, bag, surgical and other tools to his namesake and nephew, Oliver, who became an exceptional doctor in his own right.
Dr. Tiffany was the lone doctor in the region until Dr. William Case and his wife, Ruth Donaldson, arrived in Ancaster with their four children around 1805. Born in Piermont, New Hampshire July 14,1775, William Case, like Dr. Tiffany, attended Philadelphia Medical College where he met Ruth who also attended medical school in Pennsylvania; she became Hamilton’s first female nurse while they treated injured troops from both sides of the fight during the War of 1812. The Case family briefly moved to Burlington, known as Wellington Square, before coming to Hamilton.
Dr. Case set up a clinic on 200 acres of crown land near the intersection of Lottridge and King Streets today. For the first two years, his farm served as a military hospital under the command of a regimental physician until after the Battle of Stoney Creek in 1813. Following that, he cleared and farmed his land in the same way as any farmer. It wasn’t uncommon for him to be working in the field, then mount his horse and ride for miles to see a patient before returning to his fieldwork. Case practiced medicine from 1810 until his death. He wasn’t as well off monetarily as Dr. Tiffany was when he died. Most of Cases’ patients paid with products or services. His son, William Ira Allen, assisted his father for years before opening his own practice at King and Walnut Street in the 1840s. The junior Case practiced medicine until he died in 1884. Dr. Case’s daughter Ruth Pauline Case would marry Hamilton’s first City Physician, Edwin Henwood, who served during the cholera epidemic in 1854.
William Case died on March 29, 1848, at the age of 72. An agnostic, he was refused burial at any of the local churches or cemeteries. George Hamilton took pity on Case and granted him a private burial place on John Street, close below the mountain that was originally part of his land. His remains were transferred to Hamilton Cemetery when the Jolley Cut was widened to 4 lanes in 1950. Case Street, between Lottridge and Sherman Avenue, is named after Dr. William Case.