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LAVELL, MICHAEL, doctor, educator, and civil servant; b. December 1825 in Quebec City; d. 18 Feb. 1901 in Kingston, Ont.

Little is known about the early life of Michael Lavell. His father is reported to have been a British army officer of north of Ireland descent. Michael attended the Bath Academy in Upper Canada and in 1839, at Weston (Toronto), joined the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canada. He also worked in the office of the Methodist Christian Guardian in Toronto. In 1846 he became a member of the Adelaide Street Church there and was superintendent of its sabbath school and a class leader. He studied at the Toronto School of Medicine and then for one year at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, where he graduated in 1853. That same year he was licensed by the Medical Board of Upper Canada and started a practice at Peterborough. He also married, on 13 October in Toronto, Betsy Bielby Reeve, a sister of William Albert Reeve*; they were to have nine boys, seven of whom attended Queen’s College, Kingston, and three girls.

Lavell moved to Kingston in 1858 and established a practice devoted mainly to obstetrics and diseases of women and children. He and Betsy immediately joined the Sydenham Street Church, where Michael was to become superintendent of the Sunday school in 1866. They were members of the Queen Street Church soon after it was organized in 1864, and Michael was for a long time its recording steward. He attended the Methodist annual conferences for over 30 years and, following the union of 1884, was a member of every general conference. For many years he served as a regent of Victoria College in Cobourg, and it awarded him an lld in 1892. He also supported the Methodist Church financially, and, an obituary noted, “did much to make it progressive and beneficial.”

Lavell was appointed to the chair of midwifery in the medical faculty of Queen’s College in 1860 in place of John Palmer Litchfield*. The following year he became surgeon at the Kingston General Hospital and in 1863 Queen’s awarded him an md, cm. He was also involved in politics and in 1861 seconded John A. Macdonald*’s nomination in an election which pitted Macdonald against Oliver Mowat. It is likely that Lavell remained a staunch supporter of Macdonald for the next three decades; his appointment in 1872 as surgeon of the Kingston Penitentiary was undoubtedly a reward for that support.

The early years of the Queen’s medical faculty, founded in 1854, were marked by friction among the staff [see John Stewart*]. In the 1860s a new conflict arose when the board of trustees of the college demanded that members of the faculty sign the Westminster Confession. A solution to these problems was sought in the establishment of a school separate from the university but associated with it for the teaching of the sciences and the granting of degrees [see John Robinson Dickson*]. Lavell drafted the bill for the incorporation of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Kingston, which Macdonald steered through the legislature in 1866, drew up the college’s by-laws, and became professor of obstetrics and diseases of women and children. Although George Monro Grant later described the relationship between the Royal College and Queen’s as a happy one, he worked for a formal union of the two, and in 1892 the staff in the Royal College would become members of the Queen’s medical faculty. From 1866 to 1885 Lavell represented the Royal College on the provincial medical council, which he served as president in 1874.

A more striking manifestation of Lavell’s role in medical politics occurred during a controversy over women and medical education. Coeducational classes had been established at the Royal College in 1881 but in the 1882–83 session relations between the male and female students became tense. Eventually, the female students marched out of a lecture by Kenneth Neander Fenwick over a perceived insult and then absented themselves from some of their classes; the men, complaining that their lecturers were not able to express themselves freely, threatened to close down the school by transferring as a group to the Trinity Medical School in Toronto. The faculty capitulated to the demands made by the men and agreed that the two sexes would be taught in separate rooms and that no more women would be admitted. According to student Elizabeth Smith*, Lavell was “the sole honorable” member of “the whole faculty” during the affair. One result of the fray was the establishment, through the efforts of professors at the Royal College, officials at Queen’s, and citizens of Kingston, of the Women’s Medical College in 1883 in affiliation with Queen’s. Lavell, a long-time supporter of medical education for women, became president and dean (with an annual salary of $300) and professor of obstetrics and diseases of women and children, while retaining his association with the Royal College. The Women’s Medical College lasted until 1893 when competition from schools in Toronto and Montreal forced it to close its doors.

Lavell had resigned his chair in obstetrics at the Women’s Medical College in 1885 on being appointed to succeed John Creighton* as warden of the Kingston Penitentiary, though he remained president and dean until 1890. As surgeon at the penitentiary since 1872 he had been responsible for the health of the prisoners and staff (including the daily sick parade), for the prevention and control of epidemics, and for advising prison authorities on the fitness of inmates for corporal punishment and on the prison diet. Lavell was assisted by a hospital overseer and by orderlies chosen from among the convicts, whom Lavell commended warmly for their work.

Lavell earned high praise from James George Moylan who, as inspector of penitentiaries for the federal government, remarked in 1882 on “the exact manner” in which he discharged his duties and on “the care and attention which all receive who require his professional aid.” Moylan also noted that Lavell’s “precautions . . . successfully prevented the inroad of dangerous or infectious diseases.” Lavell credited the success of the penitentiary in avoiding epidemics to the emptying of sewers by convicts and to a program of vaccination. Tuberculosis was a serious cause of death, but in general the death rate at the penitentiary was exceptionally low. In his 1881 report Moylan had noted only two deaths, a suicide and a drowning. He found it remarkable that not a single death had occurred from natural causes. This was remarkable indeed, given the enfeebled condition of many convicts on admission and the physical state of the institution, with its small cage-like cells and poor sewage facilities, circumstances which Lavell found appalling. To promote the health of inmates Lavell emphasized a program of constant vigilance, medical attention, relatively good food and clothing, and a regimen of regular work. He also expressed increasing concern about the growing number of weak-minded and “imbeciles” at the penitentiary.

In 1877 the federal government had handed responsibility for the Rockwood Asylum at Kingston to the province. Many of its inmates were “criminally insane” and they were transferred to the penitentiary, which also received convicts suffering from insanity from the St Vincent de Paul Penitentiary in Quebec. In 1881 a new three-storey asylum was inaugurated to house 28 “lunatics.” The building had workshops on the first two floors and an open ward on the third. Like the superintendents at the Rockwood Asylum, Lavell believed that the criminally insane differed little from other insane people and responded best to moral treatment, which he described as kindness, good food, and regular employment.

Lavell claimed that he became warden of the penitentiary “unexpectedly,” but the appointment was seen by many as a reward from Macdonald to a long-time associate. As warden Lavell never fully emerged from the shadow of his outstanding predecessor. For one thing, the expanding authority of the minister of justice and of Moylan circumscribed the authority of wardens. In 1891 Lavell felt compelled to submit a formal request for the minor matter of replacing a flag. Moreover, by the time Lavell became warden, the penitentiary had settled into a predictable routine and it is difficult to discern his personality and approach in its affairs. He mostly carried on in the tradition of his predecessors, for example supporting the rule of silence and enforcing stern discipline while endeavouring within narrowly defined limits to treat all convicts fairly and humanely. The most significant humanitarian reform of the Lavell years was the enlargement of Kingston’s notoriously small cells, a project strongly advanced by Moylan and the justice minister, Sir John Sparrow David Thompson*.

None the less his years as warden were distinctive in a few respects. Shortly after assuming office he restricted the practice, which Creighton had followed, of using convicts to fill important posts in the penitentiary because he claimed the system led to “abuses” and “irregularities,” but he later reverted to the Creighton system. The main problem he had to confront as warden was how to utilize prison labour. Legislation in 1883 had abolished the program, which Moylan detested, under which outside contractors employed convicts to produce goods for sale to the general public. Lavell was obliged to have the prisoners work for the public account, producing goods which were sold mainly to government institutions. But, because of difficulties in putting this program into practice, the penitentiary turned more and more to stone-breaking, which many convicts regarded as debasing, and to work on the prison farm, which was not an unqualified success. Also as warden, Lavell, like prison officials elsewhere, was increasingly concerned about recidivism [see Moylan]. When a long-planned prison of isolation to help deal with the problem opened in 1894, however, it was used primarily for purposes of punishment to discipline convicts who misbehaved within the institution.

Lavell retired in 1895, leaving behind him the memory of a competent warden who had not made a great impact on the system or the institution. He lived briefly in Toronto but returned to Kingston where he spent his final years. One other service he had rendered ensured that his name would be remembered. In October 1885, with Augustus Jukes and François-Xavier Valade, he was sent by Macdonald to examine Louis Riel*, then under sentence of death, to determine his mental state. Lavell reported officially that Riel was a responsible person, and in a letter to the prime minister he added that he had found the Métis leader to be a “vain, ambitious, man crafty and cunning, with powers in a marked degree to incite weak men to desperate deeds.”

Peter Oliver

NA, MG 26, A, 106 (mfm. at AO). Christian Guardian, 19 Oct. 1853, 27 Feb. 1901. Daily British Whig, 18 Feb. 1901. W. A. Calder, “The federal penitentiary system in Canada, 1867–1899: a social and institutional history” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1979). Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1873–97, annual reports of the directors of penitentiaries, 1872–74, and of the inspector of penitentiaries in reports of the minister of justice, 1875–96. Canadian album (Cochrane and Hopkins), 4: 373. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), vol.1. P. E. P. Dembski, “Jenny Kidd Trout and the founding of the women’s medical colleges at Kingston and Toronto,” OH, 77 (1985): 183–206. Kyle Joliffe, Penitentiary medical services, 1835–1983 (Can., Ministry of the Solicitor General, Programs branch, User report, no.1984-19, [Ottawa, 1984]). J. D. Livermore, “The Orange order and the election of 1861 in Kingston,” To preserve & defend: essays on Kingston in the nineteenth century, ed. G. [J. J.] Tulchinsky (Montreal and London, 1976), 255. H. [M.] Neatby and F. W. Gibson, Queen’s University, ed. F. W. Gibson and Roger Graham (2v., Kingston, Ont., and Montreal, 1978–83), 1. A. A. Travill, Medicine at Queen’s, 1854–1920: a peculiarly happy relationship ([Kingston, 1988]); “Sir John A. Macdonald and his doctors,” Historic Kingston (Kingston), no.29 (1981): 85–108. D. G. Wetherell, “Rehabilitation programmes in Canadian penitentiaries, 1867–1914: a study of official opinion” (phd thesis, Queen’s Univ., Kingston, 1980).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Peter Oliver, “LAVELL, MICHAEL,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 31, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/lavell_michael_13E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/lavell_michael_13E.html
Author of Article: Peter Oliver
Title of Article: LAVELL, MICHAEL
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1994
Year of revision: 1994
Access Date: July 31, 2014