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CAMERON, JAMES CHALMERS, physician, professor, and hospital administrator; b. 18 Jan. 1852 in Aultsville, Upper Canada, son of the Reverend James Yeo Cameron and Charlotte Ann Ault; m. 2 Sept. 1880 Elizabeth Jane Dakers in Montreal, and they had one son; d. there 16 March 1912.

A descendant of United Empire Loyalists on both sides of his family, James Chalmers Cameron attended Upper Canada College in Toronto before entering the medical faculty of McGill College, Montreal, in 1871. His medical training reflected two important foci which would be instrumental in his success as a practitioner and a professor: an extensive, varied, and thorough medical education and a close commitment to the clinical aspects of his profession. He obtained his md in 1874, winning a prize for his final examination on “clinical reports.” That year he became assistant house surgeon at the Montreal General Hospital. He was made house surgeon in 1875 and held the position for two years. In 1877 he began postgraduate work in Europe which included almost two years at Dublin’s renowned Rotunda maternity hospital, during which time he was admitted to the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. He subsequently studied in Paris, Berlin, and Vienna.

On his return to Canada, Cameron assumed in June 1880 the chair of medical jurisprudence at the medical faculty of Bishop’s College in Montreal. Even then, his interest lay in obstetrics: less than two months later he initiated an external midwifery department in connection with the Women’s Hospital of Montreal (the maternity hospital associated with Bishop’s), through which medical teams attended patients in their homes. In 1881 he began to lecture on diseases of children. In April 1884 the chair of obstetrics and diseases of children was offered to him, but he served only a short while. By October 1885 he had announced his wish to resign from the chair as well as from his position as registrar of the medical faculty (which he had held since 1883). He pleaded illness and wanted the freedom to “try a change of climate on short notice.” The change he sought may have been political rather than geographical: in February 1886 he expressed a desire to terminate completely his relationship with Bishop’s – still on the grounds of ill health and despite having been made emeritus professor the previous December – and by May he had accepted the chair of midwifery and diseases of infants at McGill College. McGill had a superior reputation and afforded greater advantages to an ambitious physician.

Cameron would make important contributions to McGill’s medical faculty, among them a substantial donation of $5,000 along with valuable models and other implements to teach obstetrics. He served on numerous standing committees, including those which administered the medical library and the faculty’s museum. It was in his capacity as professor of midwifery (obstetrics) and therefore as ex officio chief physician of the University Maternity Hospital, however, that his influence was most strongly felt. His stewardship of the hospital, renamed the Montreal Maternity Hospital in 1887, coincided with a period of transformation for obstetrics. From a natural phenomenon guided by a midwife, birth came to be regarded as a medical event increasingly dependent on technology and professional expertise. Significantly, Cameron was instrumental in pressing for a hospital building that could accommodate the new approach. He was so committed to obtaining optimal conditions that in November 1886 he called to a permanent halt the construction of one building because colleagues in Washington had suggested revisions to the plans that were financially impossible to implement at the time. A suitable edifice was completed in 1905; Cameron donated $500 to outfit one of its operating rooms.

The stage was now set for a completely new approach to birth at Montreal Maternity. Private patients were admitted to the hospital under the care of their own physicians. Interventions such as the use of forceps and more invasive techniques such as symphysiotomy, pubiotomy, and Caesarean section were increasing, as was the use of anaesthesia. Maternal mortality rates were reduced and stabilized, even if the perinatal death rate was generally higher than before Cameron’s tenure. Cameron’s attitude can best be seen in his admonition, in a textbook to which he contributed in 1895, that “obstetricians can never do good, safe work until they learn to regard every confinement as a surgical case with many pathological possibilities to be avoided or to be overcome, rather than as the natural termination of a physiological process.” Under his new guidelines, practical obstetrics classes in the wards were systematized and the number of deliveries students had to attend before graduation rose from six to twenty by 1911–12. Cameron also implemented a program for the training of student nurses at the Montreal Maternity, on a rotation system with other hospitals.

Throughout his career Cameron had maintained links with the Montreal General Hospital (which had close ties to McGill). On his return from studies abroad he had been listed as an “outdoor physician” at the hospital, a role that continued until sometime in 1883–84; he became assistant physician during 1884–85 and was a member of the consulting staff from 1886–87 to his death. The enhanced stature and the increased clinical opportunities would have been significant. Beginning in 1877 he was also a life governor of the hospital.

Cameron’s professional achievements included appointments as honorary president of the section on paediatrics at the second Pan-American Medical Congress (held in Mexico City in 1896), as honourable fellow of the American Gynecological Society in 1910, and as a member of the British Medical Association, the Edinburgh Obstetrical Society, and the Montreal Medico-Chirurgical Society. He served as chief medical examiner for the Equitable Life Assurance Company and as assistant surgeon for the 6th Battalion of Infantry (Fusiliers). An interest in German culture as a result of his studies in Berlin translated into membership in the German Society of Montreal, beginning in 1889, and in the Teutonia Glee Club, a choir and social group, by 1900. Remarkably, he was also a specially appointed medical examiner for the German army. A member of the St James and University clubs, he was a freemason as well. He was initiated into the Royal Albert Lodge in 1874. As one of its past masters, he helped to form the University Lodge in 1911. He was elected first master of the new lodge, but died before being formally installed. He had designed the jewel of the lodge, thereafter worn in his memory. He also served as grand senior deacon of the Grand Lodge of Quebec. Yet another aspect of his personality is discerned through his reputation as a literary man who gave lectures on Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns. Physically active as well, he rode a safety bicycle to house-calls during the 1890s. Given his extensive private practice, his teaching and hospital responsibilities, and his many other diversions, Cameron was well known in Montreal. He had a full masonic funeral at St Paul’s Presbyterian Church and, as one obituary claimed, “his death [was] a loss to thousands.”

Rhona Richman Kenneally

James Chalmers Cameron is the author of a number of clinical reports in various medical journals; a list of his publications is available in his file at the DCB.

Bishop’s Univ. Arch. and Special Coll. (Lennoxville, Que.), Minutes of the medical faculty, 1871–1900. McGill Univ. Arch. (Montreal), RG 38 (faculty of medicine), c.l, c.16, c.29. McGill Univ. Libraries, Osler Library, Acc. 563/15–17, /21–22. NA, MG 28, V 147, 1; 19. Gazette (Montreal), 18 March 1912. Montreal Daily Witness, 19 March 1912. Montreal Herald, 18 March 1912. W. H. Atherton, Montreal, 1534–1914 (3v., Montreal, 1914). Bylaws of the University Lodge A.F & A.M., No.84, G.R.Q. (new ed., Montreal, 1992). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898 and 1912). R. R. Kenneally, “The Montreal Maternity, 1843–1926: evolution of a hospital” (ma thesis, McGill Univ., 1983). D. S. Lewis, Royal Victoria Hospital, 1887–1947 (Montreal, 1969). McGill Univ., Faculty of medicine, Calendar (Montreal), 1874–1913. Montreal General Hospital, Annual report, 1874–1913.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Rhona Richman Kenneally, “CAMERON, JAMES CHALMERS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 4, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cameron_james_chalmers_14E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cameron_james_chalmers_14E.html
Author of Article:   Rhona Richman Kenneally
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1998
Year of revision:   1998
Access Date:   December 4, 2023