STEWART, JOHN, surgeon, professor, publisher, and editor; b. 6 June 1812 in Perth, Scotland; d. 11 Jan. 1891 in Kingston, Ont.
John Stewart, surgeon, as he liked to be called, and not Stuart, though he claimed a devious descent from Scottish royalty, was educated at Perth Academy. In 1833 he earned the licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. He immigrated to British North America in 1834, but the first evidence of his presence is the record of his being granted a licence to practise physic, midwifery, and surgery by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Upper Canada at its annual meeting on 6 Jan. 1840. Stewart settled in Kingston and began his surgical career during the early 1840s. Trojan efforts during the typhus epidemic of 1847 endeared him to fellow citizens. He cut a fine figure striding down Kingston’s streets; characteristically he wore a Stuart plaid over his shoulder with a Kilmarnock bonnet topping his Scottish red hair – these expressed his flamboyant, devil-may-care attitude to life.
One of the six founders in 1854 of the medical school attached to Queen’s College, Stewart held concurrently the appointments of faculty secretary and professor of anatomy and physiology. In the former position he was inept, but as a teacher he was stimulating, enthusiastic, and devoted to his students. He resigned as secretary in 1861, being replaced by George Lawson, and in April 1862, after eight years of almost continual squabbling with his colleagues, mostly on administrative matters, he became the first professor to be dismissed by the university. Shortly afterwards, despite a petition signed by two thousand Kingstonians, he spent a brief time in jail for libelling an innocuous medical colleague, Horatio Yates*. Following his dismissal, Stewart continued his private surgical practice and as a confirmed bachelor found ample time to pursue his other avocations. A combative personality, a venomous pen, and a glib tongue ensured him widespread notoriety but questionable popularity.
In 1846 Dr Stewart founded a semi-weekly newspaper, the Argus. On its mast-head he assured readers that justice would be done should even the heavens fail: “Fiat iusticia coelum ruat.” The paper appeared under his proprietorship on three separate occasions. The earliest run (January 1846–July 1849) attempted to counter the alleged lack of editorial professionalism of Dr Edward John Barker*, publisher of the British Whig, who had attacked Stewart. In the second series (December 1862–January 1863), the Argus brought to public notice Stewart’s perception of the perfidy of those associated with Queen’s College at the time of his dismissal: its board of trustees, its principal, William Leitch*, and its medical faculty, in particular John Robinson Dickson*. The final three issues supported his major electoral battle during August 1867.
Notwithstanding his failure in the 1861 mayoralty race in Kingston, Stewart contested the first post-confederation federal election there against Sir John A. Macdonald – “the Great Unhung.” According to the Argus, he ran so that Kingstonians could “have an opportunity of shaking hands with a live knight, and of taking a ‘horn’ with him”; he also sought the provincial seat in opposition to Maxwell William Strange. The last issue of the Argus published the predictable election results: “Macdonald 734, Stewart 142 – Majority for Scoundrelism 592; Strange 704, Stewart 128 – Majority for Tom Foolism 576.”
The court battles in which Stewart was fond of engaging, usually without benefit of legal counsel, annoyed those personally confronted by the doctor and titillated those not directly involved. Anyone who contravened his idiosyncratic ideas of justice was immediately served a writ. Among those so treated were his servant girl, medical colleagues, political opponents, and even Sir John A. Macdonald, whom Stewart sued for bribery and corruption under the Election Act of 1873.
With a declining surgical practice and advancing age Dr Stewart mellowed and became more sociable. During his last years he often visited and became friendly with Margaret Mary Theodora Macdonald, the prime minister’s hydrocephalic daughter, who was confined to a wheelchair. Stewart died peacefully on 11 Jan. 1891. Sometimes unjustly maligned and ridiculed in life, he was mourned by those with long memories and forgiving hearts.
Daily British Whig (Kingston, Ont.), 12 Jan. 1891. Daily News (Kingston), 12 Jan. 1891. E. B. Biggar, Anecdotal life of Sir John Macdonald (Montreal, 1891), 54. William Canniff, The medical profession in Upper Canada, 1783–1850 . . . (Toronto, 1894; repr. 1980). H. [M.] Neatby and F. W. Gibson, Queen’s University, ed. F. W. Gibson and Roger Graham (2v., Kingston and Montreal, 1978–83), 1. J. A. Roy, Kingston: the king’s town (Toronto, 1952), 245–48, 271–78. A. A. Travill, Medicine at Queen’s, 1854–1920: a peculiarly happy relationship ([Kingston and Toronto], n.d.). W. J. Coyle, “Elections in Kingston, 1867,” Historic Kingston, no.16 (1968): 48–57. A. A. Travill, “John Stewart, surgeon: Queen’s first professor of anatomy and first secretary of the medical faculty,” Queen’s Medical Rev. (Kingston), 29 (May 1988): 8–12. John Watson, “Reminiscences of Dr. John Stewart,” Queen’s Rev. (Kingston), 3 (1929): 151–53.