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AIKINS, WILLIAM THOMAS, physician and medical educator; b. 5 June 1827 in Toronto Township, Upper Canada, son of James Eakins and Ann Cox; m. first 7 Oct. 1851 Louisa Adelia Piper (d. 1863), daughter of Hiram Piper, in Toronto, and they had six children; m. there secondly 4 May 1865 Lydia Ann Piper, sister of Louisa, and they had four children; d. 24 May 1897 in Toronto.

James and Ann Eakins left their native Ireland in 1816 for Philadelphia and in 1820 came to Toronto Township. There they raised six children, of whom William Thomas Aikins was the fourth, the third of four boys. (The sons would later sign their name Aikins.) A wealthy farmer and a devout Wesleyan, James in 1843 sent William, as he did his other sons, to Victoria College, Cobourg. He also paid for the medical training that William began in 1845 or 1846, most likely at Dr John Rolph*’s Toronto School of Medicine. Although licensed to practise on 16 April 1849, William enrolled that October at the renowned Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, from which he received an md in March 1850.

Aikins’s 47-year career as a schoolman began later in 1850 when, already Rolph’s partner in private practice, he joined his school as lecturer in anatomy. It was incorporated in August 1851, and by that fall Aikins had become its business manager and secretary. Credit for the school’s survival and for its dramatic rise in fortune from 1854 to 1856 is due chiefly to Aikins. With Rolph in Quebec on parliamentary business for extended periods to 1855, Aikins lectured to more than his share of classes, kept the accounts, oversaw the curriculum, and recruited new staff: Michael Barrett*, Henry Hover Wright, and Uzziel Ogden*, good instructors who remained with the corporation until death or retirement. More important, given the increasing determination of medical students to obtain degrees and the school’s lack of degree-granting authority, Aikins effectively countered competition from the medical faculties of Trinity and McGill colleges by securing, in October 1854, an arrangement with Victoria College by which the staff of the Toronto School of Medicine became Victoria’s first professors of medicine. Aikins himself became dean and a member of the college senate.

As Victoria’s medical department, the school enjoyed unprecedented enrolment. The arrangement with the college was called into question, however, in the summer of 1856, when Victoria’s board of trustees and Rolph, then professor of surgery, ignored established practice regarding the formulation of departmental policy. Initially, the point at issue was the board’s decision to purchase a building in Yorkville (Toronto) for use by the school. Aikins protested by resigning as dean in June; his successor, appointed by the board, was Rolph. During the next three months Aikins, now joined by Barrett (president of the corporation by early 1855), Wright, and Ogden, became increasingly alarmed by Rolph’s essentially autocratic management style and by his absolute authority as dean under resolutions passed by the board in July. The resolutions deeply offended Aikins’s democratic principles and, in the opinion of the four professors, denied the very fact of the Toronto School of Medicine’s continued existence as a corporate body and their legal rights as co-proprietors. Aikins was apparently senior spokesperson in their unsuccessful talks with the trustees. On 6 and 7 October the four resigned as members of the Victoria medical department.

The dissidents, being a majority of the corporation, soon secured a building and carried on as the Toronto School of Medicine. By the early 1860s enrolment was as high as that of Victoria, which was still under Rolph’s direction, Queen’s College, and McGill (counting only Upper Canadian students). The school’s success rested in part on the demise in 1856 of Trinity’s medical faculty and an earlier effort by Aikins to secure accreditation by the University of Toronto, attained in 1854 (the university’s medical faculty had closed in 1853). From October 1856 the Toronto School of Medicine taught according to the university’s standards and promoted itself by advertising that its courses were recognized as qualifying students for the mb and md degrees.

The school’s lecturer in surgery since July 1856, Aikins succeeded Barrett as president in 1862 and held the position until his death. He represented the school on the University of Toronto senate (1862–80), securing significant changes in the degree program in medicine, and was an occasional university examiner in medical subjects (1857–70, 1888–93). As a lecturer, clinician, and senior administrator, he was a key figure in the school’s academic and financial success until the early 1890s. His growing reputation attracted students from across central and western Upper Canada. When the medical faculties of Trinity College and Victoria College (1874) closed, a number of their former instructors, including Norman Bethune, James Bovell*, and Edward Mulberry Hodder*, joined the Toronto School of Medicine.

From at least 1863 Aikins was part of the majority on the University of Toronto senate calling for a restoration of its faculty of medicine, no doubt envisaging that the staff of the Toronto School of Medicine would form the new faculty, although with better safeguards than in the earlier arrangement with Victoria College. In the 1870s he began speaking publicly “in favour of many [medical] colleges but one university,” presumably Toronto, “which would raise the standard of education, create a healthy rivalry, and result in our degrees being respected abroad.” Thus in March 1887 Aikins “entered heart and soul” into talks that resulted in the acceptance, by almost all the instructors at the school, of appointments in the University of Toronto’s reactivated faculty of medicine. He served as dean from September 1887 to April 1893.

By the mid 1860s Aikins had a large surgical practice and drew a good salary from the medical school. Described by the Globe as possessing “unexcelled” business habits, he invested in real estate both in Toronto and elsewhere. By the end of the decade he was an exceptionally wealthy physician, remaining so until suffering near-total losses in the mid 1890s. A “sincere and practical” Wesleyan, he was a founding member and trustee (1868–97) of the Metropolitan Church in Toronto and a member (1865–69) of the general committee of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society. He made large donations to Metropolitan’s building funds and between 1877 and 1891 frequently ranked among the most generous donors in Canada to the missionary society.

The son of a Reformer, Aikins embraced the cause of the Clear Grits in the early 1850s, sided with George Brown*’s Reform party in the 1860s, and, unlike his more famous brother James Cox Aikins*, supported their Liberal successors in later years. Although wealthy and articulate, he entered the political arena only once, when, as an anti-coalition Reformer much admired by the Globe, he ran unsuccessfully in 1867 against James Beaty, owner of the Leader, in the federal constituency of Toronto East.

Aikins was more successful in medical politics. Appointed in 1852, thanks to Rolph’s influence, to the Medical Board of Upper Canada, he remained a member until its abolition in 1865. His temporary loss of privileges at the Toronto General Hospital from April 1855 to 1857, a consequence of the ongoing rivalry between Trinity and the Toronto School of Medicine and of animosity toward Rolph, brought him to the attention of his colleagues and the public across Upper Canada. He strove to raise professional standards and win respect both for his school and for allopathic physicians. His goal, expressed privately as early as 1852 and publicly from at least 1859, was a single representative professional authority imposing a common entrance standard and core curriculum on all Upper and Lower Canadian medical schools and licensing all physicians, including degree holders. Of course some rival schoolmen, such as Rolph after 1856, argued that the Toronto School of Medicine would benefit most from such a scheme. None the less, during the late 1850s and the 1860s Aikins increasingly enjoyed the support of allopathic practitioners, his colleagues at the school and on the medical board, and several other educators, notably Dr John Robinson Dickson* of Queen’s College, in regard to his efforts to raise standards and reform licensing procedures.

The influence of Aikins on his profession’s corporate development was likely greatest in the mid 1860s, when, probably with Henry Hover Wright, he drafted the Medical Act of 1865 and the original set of amendments to that act the following year. He and his colleagues at the Toronto School of Medicine lobbied strenuously for both, not least because the legislation extended to certificants of their school (not all of whom chose to write the university’s md examinations) the right, then enjoyed by university medical graduates, to a provincial licence without further examination. The Ontario Medical Act of 1869, by which country practitioners reduced decisively the independence of the medical schools by eliminating this privilege, was in essence consistent with Aikins’s long-held, fundamental preference for a single examining and licensing board for all. He represented his school on the General Council of Medical Education and Registration (1866–69) and on the council of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (1869–80) and was treasurer of both, in the case of the second until his death. His few public statements in the councils reflect his lifelong interest in seeing the standard for admission to medical study raised to approximate at least that required of arts matriculants, and eventually that of arts graduates.

Between the 1850s and the 1890s Aikins held a series of appointments as consultant to the Toronto General Hospital, the Hospital for Sick Children, and the Central Prison. He was physician to several local charities, including in the early 1870s the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society, and was often called upon to give expert testimony at inquests and court proceedings. He received an lld from Victoria College in 1881 and from the University of Toronto in 1889. Ill health forced him to retire in 1895 from teaching and private practice.

As a teacher and surgeon Aikins reputedly had few equals throughout Canada, and even the continent. His impressive teaching style was grounded in sound advice and frequent practical demonstrations in classrooms and clinics. Careful, thorough, yet inventive and scientifically minded, he did much in four decades to advance the cause of surgery among Toronto-trained physicians. He designed a splint for upper-arm fractures and a device for continuously cooling inflamed joints, refined surgical procedures to reduce haemorrhage during and after operations, pioneered in osteoplastic amputation above the knee, and was an early proponent of fresh-air therapy for tuberculosis. His most significant clinical contribution was unquestionably his early adoption and ardent advocacy of antiseptic procedures first advanced in 1867 by Joseph Lister, with whom Aikins consulted in 1880 during an extended tour of English and European hospitals.

Through his efforts on the medical board and its successors, Aikins contributed directly to the professionalization of Ontario medicine from the 1850s to the 1880s. At his death, however, his colleagues, former students, and lay and clerical friends chose rather to recall his brilliance as a surgeon and teacher, his breadth of opinion, his generosity, and his “sterling Christian character.” They also spoke of his professional and personal modesty, which may explain why the record of his public utterances is so meagre, particularly after the 1860s.

David R. Keane

[A search of the contemporary medical literature turned up only one article signed by William Thomas Aikins, although he is mentioned in connection with a number of other case reports. His article “Ovariotomy – five cases,” in the Canadian Journal of Medical Science (Toronto), 7 (1882): 185–87, is a useful discussion of antiseptic management in surgical procedures.  d.r.k.]

Academy of Medicine (Toronto), W. T. Aikins papers; AM 440 (licence to practise issued to Aikins, 16 April 1849); R. I. Harris papers, notes, transcriptions, and photocopies of materials concerning Aikins and the Toronto School of Medicine; ms 38 (Toronto School of Medicine, accountbook, 1878–87, and misc. accounts to 1904); ms 133 (Medical Council of Upper Canada, scrapbooks, 2v.). CTA, RG 5, F, St Andrew’s and St John’s wards, 1857–59; Ward 3, division 2, 1894–96 (mfm. at AO). NA, MG 24, B24, 2: 177, 180–81, 186–88, 206–12; MG 27, I, D1, 6; RG 4, B28, 135, bond no.1513; RG 5, C1, 417, file 1013; 446, file 959; 450, file 1298; 473, file 545; RG 31, C1, 1861, Toronto Township, district 3: 55; 1871, Toronto, St John’s Ward: 12; 1881, Toronto, St James Ward: 157. UCC-C, Ontario histories, Toronto, Metropolitan Methodist/United Church, clipping files; contribution reg., 1868-[86]: 1, 7, 21, 27, 34, 37; Victoria College Arch., Faculty of Medicine papers, boxes 2–3. UTA, B74-0007/001. York County Surrogate Court (Toronto), no.12204 (mfm. at AO). Acta Victoriana (Cobourg, Ont.), 5 (1882–83): 9. Can., Prov. of, Statutes, 1851, c.155; 1865, c.34. Canada Lancet (Toronto), 21 (1888–89): 281–82; 29 (1896–97): 581, and photograph facing p.580. Canadian Journal of Medical Science (Toronto), 5 (1880): 24–25. Canadian Journal of Medicine and Surgery (Toronto), 1 (1897): 274–75 (obituary tribute by W. A. Y[oung], including photograph). Canadian Medical Rev. (Toronto), 5 (1897): 233–35. Canadian Practitioner (Toronto), 14 (1889): 235–36 (engraved portrait appears between pp.235–36); 15 (1890): 233–35; 22 (1897): 467–68. Dominion Medical Journal (Toronto), 1 (1868–69): 158–62, 232–46; 2 (1869–70): 142–60. Medical Chronicle (Montreal), 4 (1856–57): 268–70; 5 (1857–58): 329–30, 420–23. Toronto School of Medicine, Announcement, 1862, 1864, 1870–87 (copies at UTA and MTRL). Univ. of Toronto, Calendar, 1889–90. Upper Canada Journal of Medical, Surgical and Physical Science (Toronto), 2 (1852): 26–27. Victoria College, Catalogue (Cobourg), 1845, 1848–49; Gazette (Cobourg), 1855; (Toronto), 1856–57. Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canada, Missionary Soc., Annual report (Toronto), 1850–74; also those of its successors in the Methodist Church of Canada, 1874–84, and the Methodist Church (Canada, Newfoundland, Bermuda), 1884–98. Christian Guardian, 22 Oct. 1845, 8 Oct. 1851, 10 May 1865, 9 June 1897. Globe, 16 Sept. 1857; 3–4 May 1866; 21 Aug.–3 Sept. 1867; 26, 28 May 1897. Leader (Toronto), 4 May, 16 June 1866; 7 Oct. 1867. Toronto Evening Star, 25, 27 May 1897. H. A. Bruce, Varied operations: an autobiography (Toronto, 1958). Nathanael Burwash, The history of Victoria College (Toronto, 1927). C. K. Clarke, A history of the Toronto General Hospital . . . (Toronto, 1913). W. G. Cosbie, The Toronto General Hospital, 1819–1965: a chronicle (Toronto, 1975). R. D. Gidney and W. P. J. Millar, “The origins of organized medicine in Ontario, 1850–1869,” Health, disease and medicine: essays in Canadian history, ed. C. G. Roland ([Toronto], 1984), 65–95. C. M. Godfrey, Medicine for Ontario: a history (Belleville, Ont., 1979). M. H. V. Cameron, “William Thomas Aikins (1827–1895),” Canadian Medical Assoc., Journal (Toronto), 64 (1951): 161–63. L. D. Fraser, “Phoenix: medicine at Victoria, 1854–1892,” Vic-Report (Toronto), 2 (1974), no.5: 6–7. C. W. Harris, “History of Canadian surgery: William Thomas Aikins, M.D., LL.D.,” Canadian Journal of Surgery (Toronto), 5 (January–October 1962): 131–37. G. A. Peters, “Aikins’s hoop-iron splint in fractures of the humerus,” British Medical Journal (London), January–June 1897: 1409–10. F. N. G. Starr, “Dr. William Thomas Aikins,” Univ. of Toronto Monthly, 2 (1901–2): 173–75 (photograph facing p.173).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

David R. Keane, “AIKINS, WILLIAM THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 31, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/aikins_william_thomas_12E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/aikins_william_thomas_12E.html
Author of Article: David R. Keane
Title of Article: AIKINS, WILLIAM THOMAS
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1990
Year of revision: 1990
Access Date: October 31, 2014