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DeWOLF, JAMES RATCHFORD, physician and asylum superintendent; b. 19 Nov. 1818 in Horton, N.S., one of the 14 children of Thomas Andrew Strange DeWolf and Nancy Ratchford; m. 17 Nov. 1846 Eleanor Reade Sandifer in Halifax, and they had four children; d. there 5 March 1901.

James Ratchford DeWolf received his early education in Horton. The son of a merchant shipper and mha for Kings County, he prepared himself at an early age for a medical career by becoming an apprentice to Dr Ebenezer Fitch Harding of Windsor. During the two years DeWolf studied with Harding, the doctor came to respect “his assiduity; his strict moral conduct, and . . . [his] iable qualities of the heart.”

In 1839 DeWolf entered the University of Edinburgh. He graduated in 1841 with an md and was awarded a licentiate and a licentiate in medicine from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. While at Edinburgh he was house surgeon to the maternity hospital, clinical clerk to Professor Robert Christison, and a member of the Société de Médecine de Paris, and he was subsequently the first colonial member of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association of London. DeWolf returned to Nova Scotia in 1841 to practise medicine in Kentville, and after a brief sojourn in Brigus, Nfld, in 1844, he moved to Halifax. In 1849 he served as president of the Nova Scotia Philanthropic Society.

In 1857 DeWolf was appointed superintendent of the new Provincial Hospital for the Insane [see Hugh Bell*]. His medical expertise and Christian sensibilities – he was a staunch Methodist – seemed to augur well for a successful career in the care of the insane. Like most asylum superintendents in the third quarter of the 19th century, DeWolf advocated moral therapy rather than physical control, noting that the “absence of personal restraint” was an especially “pleasing feature of the modern and humane system of treatment.” Christian contemplation, daily exercise outdoors, musical entertainment, and “voluntary” labour was his therapeutic regimen. By “favors and gratuities,” DeWolf observed, patients were induced to work in ways that benefited themselves and the hospital.

Despite DeWolf’s humanity and his persistent opposition to the maltreatment of the insane, doubts quickly arose whether he possessed “all of the qualifications of a Medical Superintendent.” He seems to have had particular difficulty working with subordinates. On 12 May 1860 James Liddell, secretary to the board of hospital commissioners, wrote to Provincial Secretary Joseph Howe* describing “the continued differences and want of harmony” in the administration of the hospital, problems that the commissioners had tried unsuccessfully to resolve. A committee of the Executive Council was appointed to investigate the “jealousies and petty rivalries” at the asylum, which had made even the patients aware “that they were living in the midst of civil war.”

At the heart of the matter was DeWolf’s dispute with Amos Black, the steward of the hospital. DeWolf intimated that Black was engaged in sexual irregularities with patients, observing that he “persists in visiting the Female Wards, as well in the evening as the day time.” He also was unhappy with what he described as Black’s insolent attitude and “increasingly defiant” behaviour. Black of course denied these charges and replied that DeWolf was determined to blacken his character because of a personal animus. Although the committee recommended Black’s dismissal and reorganized the management of the hospital in order to give the superintendent more autonomy, DeWolf was not completely vindicated. The commissioners had been concerned with his extravagance and lavish expenditures and his use of hospital supplies for the maintenance of his family, and the committee recommended that he receive an annual salary which would provide also for his family.

Over the next decade and a half DeWolf carried on as superintendent without any apparent difficulty. In 1866 he served as president of the Medical Society of Nova Scotia. A founding member of the society in 1854, he had been secretary for four consecutive terms from 1855. He was also professor of medical jurisprudence at Dalhousie College from 1871 to 1875.

By the mid 1870s, however, charges of mismanagement at the hospital resurfaced, occasioned by the report of one of the commissioners of the provincial Board of Health, Dr Edward Farrell. Farrell maintained that patients were being neglected and that irregularities existed in contracting for supplies. In response to these allegations the government of Philip Carteret Hill* appointed a commission in May 1877 to investigate the hospital, now the Nova Scotia Hospital for the Insane. The commission heard testimony from over 40 witnesses, who told of abuse of the patients, irregular attendance in the wards, poor heating and ventilation, inadequate provisions for fire safety, extravagance by DeWolf, and poisoned relations between him and his staff. The commissioners were particularly concerned that a feud between DeWolf, whom one witness described as “a man difficult to get along with,” and the assistant physician, Dr Duncan Alexander Fraser, had deprived patients of the benefits of their joint advice. Fraser testified that he had not had “a professional consultation” with DeWolf in the four years since he had joined the hospital.

Appalled by the “discreditable state of things” revealed by the investigation, the commissioners called for a complete reorganization of the institution and the dismissal of DeWolf, Fraser, the storekeeper, and the supervisor. DeWolf’s place was taken by Dr Alexander Peter Reid*, a highly respected physician and a leading figure in the professionalization of medicine in Nova Scotia.

Throughout the investigation there had been hints of corruption in the operation of the hospital. For one thing, the obtaining of supplies was rarely subject to contract or tender. For another, the system for checking supplies was so lax that there was “no means of knowing whether the accounts of goods received and distributed were correct or not.” Despite the murkiness of the accounts, DeWolf was required to refund to the provincial treasury the amount charged against him for supplies as well as the amount of his servant’s wages, the latter having been obtained without authority.

After his dismissal DeWolf retired to a home in Halifax, living on his savings and a number of shrewd investments. He held shares in several fire insurance companies, the Halifax Banking Company, the Bank of Nova Scotia, the Montreal Telegraph Company, and the Starr Manufacturing Company. No longer practising medicine, he turned to local and family history, collaborating with Arthur Wentworth Hamilton Eaton* in the compilation of a DeWolf family genealogy. “No son of [Kings] county,” Eaton wrote, “has been more interested in the county’s early history than was Dr. DeWolf.”

Colin D. Howell

PANS, MG 1, 259B; MG 20, 181; MG 100, 134, nos.107, 112. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 6 March 1901. D. A. Campbell, “History of the Medical Society of Nova Scotia,” Maritime Medical News (Halifax), 15 (1903): 540. Eaton, Hist. of Kings County, 494. Daniel Francis, “The development of the lunatic asylum in the Maritime provinces,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 6 (1976–77), no.2: 23–38. “Genealogy of the DeWolf family with pedigree charts . . . also the Nova Scotia family of DeWolf, with appendix by James R. DeWolf, m.d.,” comp. E. G. and E. McC. Salisbury (1893; mfm. at PANS). Maritime Medical News, 13 (1901): 104–5. N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1860–61, app. (reports of the commissioner for the Hospital for the Insane, 1859–60); 1878, app., no.10 (Commission appointed to investigate the condition and general management of the Provincial Hospital for the Insane, Report), also issued as a separate pamphlet (Halifax, 1877; copy in PANS, Library, V/F 275, no.18). Nova Scotia Hospital for the Insane, Supplementary evidence as to the management of the Nova Scotia Hospital for the Insane, Mount Hope, Dartmouth ([Halifax, 1878–79]).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Colin D. Howell, “DeWOLF, JAMES RATCHFORD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 2, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dewolf_james_ratchford_13E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dewolf_james_ratchford_13E.html
Author of Article: Colin D. Howell
Title of Article: DeWOLF, JAMES RATCHFORD
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1994
Year of revision: 1994
Access Date: September 2, 2014