HOLMES, WILLIAM, surgeon, physician, army officer, landowner, office holder, and jp; b. c. 1766 in Stewartstown (Northern Ireland); d. 24 Feb. 1834 at Quebec.
William Holmes had acquired an education as a surgeon before 31 March 1787, when he purchased a commission in the medical department of the British army at the customary price of 400 guineas. As surgeon to the 5th Foot he was immediately stationed at Quebec. In 1790–91 he was in Detroit tending Indians, under Little Turtle [Michikinakoua*] and Blue Jacket [Weyapiersenwah*], wounded in battle against the Americans. Garrisoned next in Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Upper Canada, he proposed to settle in the province; in 1792 he was granted 1,200 acres in Pickering Township, where he also purchased land, and in 1796 he was issued a town lot in Newark. His transfer to Quebec in 1796, where his regiment was drafted, and his appointment as surgeon to the forces in Lower Canada on 17 Jan. 1799 precluded his plans for settlement.
Following a trip to Europe, where he probably acquired a degree in medicine, Holmes took up his duties at Quebec in June 1799. As senior medical officer in the Canadas after the departure of John Mervin Nooth in July, he ranked above James Fisher, garrison surgeon, and George Longmore*, apothecary to the forces and physician, each of whom boasted a longer service record. The three men were required to work closely together. Longmore found Holmes a skilled surgeon and was to seek his assistance in a difficult case in 1801. However, conflict arose between Holmes and Fisher in 1799 over management of a typhus epidemic among the forces. In December Fisher was sent to Montreal in “complete control of the medical proceedings” there, and his persistent refusal to report direct to Holmes led to the intervention of the Duke of Kent [Edward* Augustus], who confirmed Holmes’s seniority; Holmes was “responsible for all medical staff in the country,” Fisher for the garrison sick only. Tension recurred during the reduction of hospital staff in 1802–3 following the signature of the Treaty of Amiens between Britain and France; Fisher’s position was secured, while Holmes’s was eliminated by the appointment of James Macaulay as senior hospital officer and surgeon to the forces for the Canadas. Holmes was placed on half pay in June 1803 but was returned to full pay in December 1804 as surgeon to the forces in both provinces.
Meanwhile, Holmes had established himself in civil practice at Quebec. From about 1799 he was associated with Longmore at the Hôtel-Dieu and with Fisher at the Hôpital Général. He was physician to the nuns at both hospitals. These posts were unpaid, but they carried prestige that was valuable in building up a clientele as, no doubt, did his position of deputy grand master of Lower Canadian freemasons from 1805 to 1810 at least.
Holmes had married “a native” of Lower Canada named Mary Ann, and they had settled with their four children in modest surroundings in Upper Town. They had two more children before she died in 1803. His marriage on 12 May 1807 to Margaret Macnider, widow of the merchant James Johnston*, brought property and financial security; through her, for instance (and perhaps through David Lynd*, for whose estate he acted as curator), he became a co-proprietor of the Dorchester Bridge. After the birth of a daughter in 1808, the family moved into the house “lately occupied by Mrs. Lynd [Jane Henry].”
His plans to remarry had precipitated Holmes’s retirement from the army; rather than accept a posting to Upper Canada, he returned to half pay on 25 April 1807. He volunteered his services to Governor Sir George Prevost* on the outbreak of war in 1812, but his offer does not seem to have been taken up. At times, particularly after the war, his finances appear to have been shaken; in late 1812 and again five years later his property was seized by the sheriff for sale at auction, and in 1818 and 1819 he was obliged to inflict similar treatment on two of his debtors. Nevertheless, he had the resources to become a keen farmer and owned well-kept properties along Chemin Sainte-Foy and the road to Cap-Rouge. He was an active member of the Agriculture Society, in which his farmers were prize-winners. In addition to the rural holdings, he owned several town houses, which he leased, and other property in the city.
Meanwhile, Holmes’s clientele increased in town and out. He and Fisher “shared the whole practice,” according to the physician and surgeon Joseph Painchaud*. Holmes gave care at times to the sick and infirm at the Hôpital Général, and until 1825 he held exclusive responsibility for the sick poor admitted to the Hôtel-Dieu. In 1813 he was appointed an examiner of candidates for medical licences. Fisher’s departure three years later opened new avenues; Holmes replaced him as physician to the Ursulines and as president in the Quebec district of the examiners of candidates for licences. In June 1817 he was appointed a member of the Vaccine Board, and in 1821 he became its vice-president. On 28 June 1821 he was commissioned a justice of the peace.
In November 1816 Holmes had been appointed a commissioner for the relief of the insane and foundlings at Quebec. The previous month William Hacket, who had replaced Fisher as doctor to the Hôpital Général, had reported to Governor Sir John Coape Sherbrooke on the deplorable housing of the insane at that institution, and in January 1818 Holmes’s testimony on the subject before a committee of the House of Assembly helped to secure funds immediately for additional accommodation and repairs and later for further improvements; in May he was appointed a trustee to oversee the work. Holmes attempted to introduce fresh air and exercise and to remove restraint in the treatment of the insane, as advocated by the French specialist and theorist Philippe Pinel, but continued overcrowding in the older cells undermined such care. In 1824 Holmes and Hacket, responding to questionnaires of a special committee of the Legislative Council, endorsed the committee’s opinion that “one Lunatic Asylum to serve the whole province” should be constructed. Although strongly supported by Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Nathaniel Burton, the recommendation was rejected by a special committee of the assembly chaired by François Blanchet; inquiry by another committee of the lower house in January 1829 resulted in only minor improvements in accommodation. Known familiarly as the “Insane Physician,” Holmes remained solely responsible for care of the insane and the only medical man on the commission for their relief, to which he was reappointed in 1830 and 1832.
Holmes’s term as president of the Quebec examiners for medical licences coincided with a rapid increase in the size of the medical profession; between 1816 and 1831 more than 200 persons were admitted at Quebec and Montreal. This growth and the changing composition of the profession were accompanied by internal ethnic and political conflict. Examiners, who were appointed by the governor, were mainly British, and at Quebec before 1824 were entirely military, with the exception of Thomas Fargues*. Their decisions were arbitrary; moreover, by an act of 1788, military and British-educated candidates for licence could receive preferential treatment. After 1818 the boards came under increasing criticism in the assembly; a movement, led by Blanchet and later by Jacques Labrie, sought to repeal the act of 1788 and to have the examiners elected by members of the profession. Perhaps realizing the potential for conflict in the appointment of examiners, Holmes had recommended vainly to Sherbrooke in 1816 that Blanchet be made one, and in 1820 he requested from Governor Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay*] an increase in their number. Meanwhile, candidates for licence sympathetic to the movement disputed decisions of the examiners, and Holmes’s exclusive appointment at the Hôtel-Dieu was censured in the nationalist newspaper Le Canadien. On 31 March 1831 a new medical act provided for elective boards of examiners; in the elections that followed Holmes and his last remaining military colleague were defeated. Holmes, who under the act of 1788 had not required a licence to practise, was obliged to appear before the new Board of Examiners at Quebec, presided over by Joseph Painchaud. Requested to attend a meeting in October 1831, he resisted until April 1832.
By that time, Holmes had generally withdrawn from active practice. As early as 1821 the Ursulines, declaring him “too old,” had asked for his replacement by Fargues. In 1825 Fargues became associated with him as consultant at the Hôtel-Dieu where, although Holmes retained his position as senior medical officer, much of his work was taken over by younger staff members. Holmes’s son-in-law Sydney Robert Bellingham* recalled that in 1824 he was “a tall gray-headed sixty-year old gentleman with small eyes and a slight north of Ireland brogue.” By 1832, two years before his death, “the old doctor wore a loose dressing-gown and slippers, and spent the greater part of his day at the Garrison Library, not a stone’s throw from his residence, where he provoked much fun amongst the officers by his free and easy costume.”
According to Bellingham, Holmes had been generous and kind to his patients, had been well liked in the religious hospitals, and had frequently “declined payment for his advice and medicines.” On the other hand Painchaud, a professional rival and political opponent, asserted that he had overcharged for country calls and had been hampered in his practice by a poor facility in French. Successful in his private practice, in his appointive positions Holmes represented the medical establishment and British military and executive authority in a period of professional and political conflict and change. Although thrown by his offices into the debates, being neither an intellectual nor an innovator he did not play a leading role. As the system of health care and the medical profession became increasingly entangled in the political struggle between the assembly and the executive branch in the Lower Canadian legislature, Holmes tended to draw apart. If he had been quick-tempered as a young man, in later years he seems to have mellowed, living quietly with his family, yet “ever-activated,” as he had earlier declared, “by the faithful discharge of [his] duties.” Prosaic in outlook, Holmes outlived his contemporaries, in many ways an 18th-century practitioner to the end.
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