HAMILTON, ROBERT DOUGLAS, physician, author, and militia officer; b. 16 Jan. 1783 at Muirhead, in the parish of Dalserf, Scotland, son of John Hamilton and Isabella Torrance; d. 2 April 1857 in Scarborough Township, Upper Canada.
The son of a stonemason turned farmer, Robert Douglas Hamilton attended schools at Lesmahagow and Stonehouse (Strathclyde) and later received a “classical and philosophical education” at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh without obtaining a degree from either institution. From 1805 to 1808 he took medical courses, including military surgery, at the University of Edinburgh. Between April 1808 and November 1809 he served as assistant surgeon on the naval hospital ship Tromp, stationed at Falmouth, England. He subsequently practised medicine at nearby St Mawes. In 1812, during the Peninsular War, Hamilton returned to military service as an army staff surgeon in Spain and Portugal. After the war he settled in Scotland at Lesmahagow.
Hamilton immigrated to the United States in 1827 and continued his practice at New York City and at Hunter, N.Y. Three years later he moved to Scarborough Township, near York (Toronto), Upper Canada. Hamilton was Scarborough’s first resident physician and he gradually attracted a wide clientele. Reputedly he did not own a horse and had to be called for and returned home when his services were needed. Although Hamilton was a member of the Medical Board of Upper Canada (1838–39) and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Upper Canada (1839–40), he attended few meetings of either body.
Hamilton was an accomplished writer on both medical and political topics. His chief medical work, The principles of medicine, appeared in London in 1822. In this textbook on fevers and inflammatory diseases Hamilton expounded a mechanistic view of biology and discarded contrary views with the emphatic and ironic eloquence that can also be recognized in his political writings. He was a conservative practitioner, opposed to the use of obstetrical forceps and convinced of the usefulness of heavy bleeding to relieve a wide variety of disorders.
Hamilton’s conservatism in medicine carried over to his political views as expressed in the letters and articles he wrote for local newspapers and periodicals under the pseudonym of Guy Pollock, the name of a Scarborough blacksmith. In 1832, aggravated by growing reform agitation in the province, Hamilton sought to demonstrate in the Courier of Upper Canada, a strong tory journal, “that the people of Upper Canada, instead of complaining of grievances, have more abundant causes for being satisfied with the government under which they live, than any other people on the face of the earth.” He came to public notice most prominently through letters published in the Toronto Palladium in 1838, in the aftermath of the rebellion of 1837. Plunder was the chief motive behind the rebellion, he claimed, and no one spoke of reform in Upper Canada “without harboring a lurking wish for a revolution.” Coupled with this reactionary fervour was a contempt for the United States which prompted Hamilton to characterize Americans as cowardly braggarts. In 1836 he had served as lieutenant-colonel of the 3rd Regiment of East York militia and he may have accompanied the militiamen who marched from Scarborough to Toronto on 5 Dec. 1837. Hamilton’s political interests, which included support for an established church, led him in 1839 to contest, unsuccessfully, the provincial by-election held in 3rd York riding, when the sitting member, Thomas David Morrison, was unseated for his part in the rebellion.
The wide variety of literary works published by Hamilton in Britain and Upper Canada also attracted attention. A diligent search has so far failed to turn up copies of the novel, poetry, and essays reported by British contemporaries, nor have his voluminous unpublished writings come to light. In Upper Canada, Hamilton, along with such other British-trained littérateurs as William Dunlop* and Susanna Moodie [Strickland*], contributed to the short-lived Canadian Literary Magazine, launched in 1833 by George Gurnett*. Hamilton was a founder and first president (1834) of the Scarborough Subscription Library. The British American Journal of Medical and Physical Science regarded him in 1847 as “one of the few literary men which Canada possessed.” His writings were marked, in the later opinion of the Reverend Henry Scadding*, “by an elevation of thought and culture beyond the ordinary, and by a good style.”
Hamilton apparently retired from medical practice before 1852, “after a long career of active exertion and professional usefulness,” and returned to Scotland. He did not remain, for the “beloved physician” died in Scarborough “after a painful and lingering illness.” He was buried there in the cemetery of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. “Rather eccentric and quite self-independent,” Hamilton had never married.
Robert Douglas Hamilton is the author of The principles of medicine, on the plan of the Baconian philosophy; volume first: on febrile and inflammatory diseases (London, 1822). Under the pseudonym of Guy Pollock he published numerous articles and letters, including: “A chapter on craniology” and “A description of the falls of Niagara written for the information of a friend in England, during the month of August, 1830” in Canadian Literary Magazine (York [Toronto]), 1 (1833): 101–4 and 24–31 respectively; “Preservation of potatoes from winter frost,” Canadian Emigrant, and Western District Commercial and General Advertiser (Sandwich [Windsor, Ont.]), 3 Nov. 1835; “War with the United States,” “Nature of political liberty,” and “Nature of political grievances” in Palladium of British America and Upper Canada Mercantile Advertiser (Toronto), 24 Jan., 7 Feb., and 7 March 1838; and “Mr. George’s sermon, preached on the late Thanksgiving Day,” British Colonist (Toronto), 26 July 1838.
AO, RG 22, ser.155, will of R. D. Hamilton. PAC, MG 29, D61, 10: 3652–56. Sarnia Public Library (Sarnia, Ont.), Henry Jones diaries, 25 April 1839. British American Journal of Medical and Physical Science (Montreal), 3 (1847–48): 222. Upper Canada Journal of Medical, Surgical and Physical Science (Toronto), 1 (1851–52): 60. Courier of Upper Canada (York), 29 Feb. 1832. Palladium of British America and Upper Canada Mercantile Advertiser, 4 April 1838. G. C. Boase and W. P. Courtney, Bibliotheca Cornubiensis . . . (3v., London, 1874–82), 3: 1215. Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis, 174–75. Canniff, Medical profession in U.C., 107, 113, 126, 139, 409–10. T. B . Higginson, “Scarborough Fair,” part II (Scarborough [Toronto], 1979), 2–3, 5. A history of Scarborough, ed. R. R. Bonis ([2nd ed.], Scarborough, 1968), 104, 119–20. History of Toronto and county of York, Ontario . . . (2v., Toronto, 1885), 1: 112. The township of Scarboro, 1796–1896, ed. David Boyle (Toronto, 1896), 206–8, 233. T.B. Higginson, “Dr. Robert Douglas Hamilton, ‘the beloved physician,’” Scarborough Hist. Notes & Comments (Scarborough), 1 (1976–77), no.1: 2–4. Henry Scadding, “Some Canadian noms-de-plume identified: with samples of the writings to which they are appended,” Canadian Journal (Toronto), new ser., 15 (1876–78): 263–64. J. J. Talman, “The newspapers of Upper Canada a century ago,” CHR, 19 (1938): 19–20.