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GWYNNE, WILLIAM CHARLES, physician and educator; b. at Castleknock, Ireland, April 1806, son of the Reverend William Gwynne, of the Church of Ireland, and of Eliza Nelson; d. on board ship, 1 Sept. 1875.

William Charles Gwynne followed the eight-year programme in arts and medicine at Trinity College, Dublin, becoming a Bachelor of Medicine in 1831, and earned certificates of surgical competence in both Dublin and Edinburgh. Early in 1832 he sailed for Quebec as ship’s surgeon and by June had established himself in York (Toronto). His scholarly antecedents ensured a respectable practice, which was strengthened socially by his marriage in 1835 to Anne Murray Powell, granddaughter of William Dummer Powell*. His combativeness, however, drove him immediately to oppose the Tory clique which controlled medical teaching, licensing, and hospital attendance for Toronto and Upper Canada. He convened meetings and circulated petitions in this cause during the late 1830s; in October 1838 he took his place on the enlarged and reformed Medical Board of Upper Canada. By 1839 Gwynne was also deputy grand master of the Grand Orange Lodge of British North America, but left the order after an unsuccessful attempt in that year to depose and succeed Ogle Robert Gowan as grand master.

Gwynne was ready to admit his involvement in politics, his special enemies being “the Ultra-Canadian party” or Compact Tories. He considered himself “liberal conservative,” and the appointment of Charles Poulett Thomson* as governor cheered him. He was at first the only doctor named to the new commission of management for the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in 1841. In November 1842 Governor Sir Charles Bagot* appointed him professor of anatomy and physiology in the projected King’s College, Toronto, with precedence over the other medical professors. (He was later Bagot’s physician during his last illness.) Sitting on King’s College council from September 1843, Gwynne led minority opposition to High Church and clerical dominance there, and precipitated prolonged inquiries into the management of the college’s rich endowment. He continued his campaigns (usually in association with Christopher Widmer*, the city’s senior doctor) against both Tory and Radical factions seeking sole and statutory control over the medical profession. In all these matters Gwynne, like many other whiggish, low church Anglo-Irish gentlemen, found Robert Baldwin*’s parliamentary group congenial spokesmen, and Baldwin’s bill of 1849 reconstituting the University of Toronto met his wishes. Under it he remained professor of anatomy.

When a political deal involving John Rolph*, leader of the Radical doctors in Canada West and a minister in Francis Hincks*’ administration, abolished the university’s medical school in 1853, Gwynne, incensed, retired to Britain, but he returned to Toronto in 1856. He neglected both politics and medicine (except for his continued membership on the Medical Board) for farming and the study of insects. Gwynne had various landholdings which were always entangled by mortgage and debt; he had only one other business interest: a directorship in the Toronto and Goderich Railway for 1846–49 and for 1851–53 in the railway that succeeded it in 1851, the Toronto and Guelph, both short-lived promotions of his brother, the lawyer John Wellington Gwynne*.

Gwynne’s strong sense of intellectual and social self-esteem had drawn him first to combat on many fronts. Then, on his own defeat, and the eclipse of his allies, he was condemned to a stubborn inner exile. Wracked by long frustrations, Gwynne died from “an ulcer in the stomach” on board the Miramichi on 1 Sept. 1875 while travelling to New Brunswick for his health. Three sons had died in infancy; only an unmarried daughter and his shrewish wife survived him.

Barrie Dyster

Academy of Medicine (Toronto), 920 (Local biography), (Gwynne, certificates and testimonials, 1829–31); AM 360 (Bagot to Gwynne, January 1843). MTCL, Baldwin papers, entries in the index for Gwynne, Croft, and Crooks; typescript by J. H. Richardson, “Reminiscences of the medical profession in Toronto.” PAC, MG 24, A13 (Charles Bagot papers), 2, Christopher Widmer to Bagot, 10 Nov. 1842; Gwynne to Bagot, 25 Nov. 1842; 5, Bagot to Gwynne, 21 Nov. 1842; Bagot to Widmer, 6 Nov. 1842; Bagot to John Strachan, 9 Dec. 1842; RG 5, A1, 17 Nov. 1835, 29 Jan. 1836, 5 March 1836; C1, 1841, no.1434; 1842, no.2723. PAO, Jarvis-Powell papers, 1842, 1843, 1853, 1854; Ridout papers, G. Powell to Charlotte Ridout, 10 Feb. 1873. St James’ Cemetery (Toronto), record book and monument. University of Toronto Archives, Office of the Chief Accountant financial records (109, Final report of the commission of inquiry of 1848 into the affairs of King’s College and Upper Canada College); Office of the Chief Accountant (117, King’s College Council Minute Book, III, 1842–48); University of Toronto Senate minutes, 1850–53. Examiner (Toronto), 8 May 1850. Globe (Toronto), 4 May 1850, September 1875. Toronto, Directories, 1833–75. Canniff, Medical profession in Upper Canada, 86–89, 402–7. Institutional care of the insane in the United States and Canada, ed. H. M. Hurd (4v., [Baltimore, 1916–17]), IV, 131. Landmarks of Toronto (Robertson), III, 13–14.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Barrie Dyster, “GWYNNE, WILLIAM CHARLES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 22, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gwynne_william_charles_10E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gwynne_william_charles_10E.html
Author of Article: Barrie Dyster
Title of Article: GWYNNE, WILLIAM CHARLES
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1972
Year of revision: 1972
Access Date: September 22, 2014