THOMSON, JOHN, physician; b. in 1808, probably in Perthshire, Scotland, son of the Reverend James Thomson and Catherine McKay; m. 17 Feb. 1835 Mary Ann Abrams, and they had nine sons and a daughter who survived infancy; d. 13 Feb. 1884 at Chatham, N.B.
John Thomson’s parents brought him as a child to the Miramichi River area of New Brunswick in September 1816. His father, a Secessionist Presbyterian minister in Perthshire, had decided to join the widespread emigration and had accepted a charge in the Newcastle-Chatham area. His son John went back to Scotland to study medicine, and in the early 1830s he received a certificate to practise from the University of Edinburgh. He then returned to the Miramichi and established himself at Chatham. Shortly after his arrival he was appointed medical superintendent of the Seaman’s Hospital in Douglastown, a position he would fill for more than 50 years. In 1832 he was put in charge of the quarantine station for immigrants on Sheldrake Island in Miramichi Bay, and again in 1847 headed the station, then located on Middle Island in the same area. In June of that year an immigrant ship arrived from Liverpool; of its 467 passengers, 117 had died in passage and another 100 were incapacitated by typhus when they landed in New Brunswick. The epidemic, which was also carried by other ships, claimed the lives not only of passengers but also of medical workers who met them, including that of Thomson’s colleague, Dr John Vondy*.
In his various assignments Thomson lacked the necessary facilities to house or cure the great numbers of diseased immigrants, and his work was also frustrated by impatient shipowners and by the lack of public health regulations in New Brunswick. In July 1848, for example, as health officer for the port of Miramichi, he recommended the quarantine of a vessel because it contained “two cases of typhus fever on board of the worst kind.” Quarantine would have delayed the delivery of goods on board and idled the vessel during the height of the shipping season. On the appeal of the shipowners, a magistrate modified Thomson’s quarantine order by allowing all the passengers to disembark at Chatham, arguing that “the interest of the Ship owners should suffer as little as possible from detention by the performance of Quarantine.” Although boards of health existed in many counties of New Brunswick, they were often inactive and responded to crisis situations without the benefit of established procedures or adequate funding. Only towards the end of Thomson’s medical career did the government begin to address itself seriously to the control of communicable disease. In the late 1870s an act was passed establishing county boards of health and providing for the sharing of their costs between the county and provincial governments. Finally in 1887 a provincial board of health was established and the province was divided into health districts.
Ironically, the growing sensitivity with which public health was beginning to be viewed may have prompted the spirited exchange between Thomson and the editor of the Miramichi Advance (Chatham) in 1879. The editor criticized Thomson’s hospital in Douglastown (the Seaman’s Hospital had been renamed Marine Hospital when it had come under the federal Department of Marine and Fisheries at confederation). Thomson’s public defence of his work led to a one-third increase in the hospital’s budget the following year, funds which permitted renovations to the institution and the reduction of disorderly and unsanitary conditions.
John Thomson’s prominence on the Miramichi was a result of many years in practice and of his deep involvement in various community services and societies. Beginning in 1840, he served for more than 20 years as surgeon to the 2nd Battalion of Northumberland militia and in the 1870s and 1880s was a county coroner. He also lectured to the Douglastown Mechanics’ Institute and served on the executive of the local Young Men’s Christian Association which he helped organize. Throughout his life Thomson played an active role in the Presbyterian St John’s Church in Chatham, a Secessionist congregation founded in 1832 by his brother-in-law, the Reverend John McCurdy.
PANB, Northumberland County papers, Coroners lists and appointments; file 11/2/8 (papers respecting the establishment of a quarantine hospital on Sheldrake Island, 1832–49). St Andrew’s United Church (Chatham, N.B.), Birth records (mfm. at PANB). St James and St John United Church (Newcastle, N.B.), Burial records (mfm. at PANB). Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1877, IV, no.5; 1878, I, no.1; 1879, III, no.3; 1880–81, VI, no.11. Gleaner and Northumberland Schediasma (Chatham), 1835. Miramichi Advance (Chatham), 1879, 1884. Union Advocate (Chatham), 1884. World (Chatham), 1884. Genealogical record & biographical sketches of the McCurdys of Nova Scotia, comp. H. P. Blanchard (London, 1930). New-Brunswick almanac, 1835, 1843, 1865, 1868–84. F. E. Archibald, “Contribution of the Scottish church to New Brunswick Presbyterianism from its earliest beginnings until the time of the disruption, and afterwards, 1784–1852” (phd thesis, Univ. of Edinburgh, 1933). Esther Clark Wright, The Miramichi: a study of the New Brunswick river and of the people who settled along it (Sackville, N.B., 1944). J. A. Fraser, By favourable winds: a history of Chatham, New Brunswick ([Chatham], 1975); Gretna Green: a history of Douglastown, New Brunswick, Canada, 1783–1900 ([Chatham], 1969). W. B. Stewart, Medicine in New Brunswick . . . (Moncton, N.B., 1974).