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LITCHFIELD, JOHN PALMER, journalist, physician, and educator; b. 1808 in London, England, probably the son of John Charles Litchfield, a surgeon in the Haymarket; m. Louisa Maddock; d. 18 Dec. 1868 at Kingston, Ont.

There is considerable doubt whether John Palmer Litchfield earned a medical degree. At various times he maintained that he had received one from the University of Heidelberg (West Germany), that he was a lecturer recognized by the Royal College of Surgeons, and that he was a fellow of the Linneaen Society – none of which was true. By his own description he was connected in the mid 1830s as a “physician” with the London Infirmary for Diseases of the Skin and the Westminster General Dispensary. He became a medical journalist and contributed a series of lectures on diseases of the skin to Lancet and the Medical Gazette in 1835. From 1836 to 1838 he apparently contributed articles on a variety of subjects to such British monthly periodicals as Bentley’s Miscellany. He emigrated to Australia in 1838 and in June of that year was appointed without salary as inspector of hospitals for South Australia. In 1840 he was briefly a member of the managing board of Adelaide’s first hospital, a clay hut. He continued as an active journalist with the Adelaide Independent and Cabinet of Amusement and campaigned vigorously for the development of public health services. When a new general hospital was opened in Adelaide in 1840, however, Litchfield was not reappointed to the hospital board and his post as inspector was abolished. He diverted his attention to the pauper insane, but failed to acquire funds for an asylum and convalescent home from the governor of the colony, George Gawler. At the same time his credentials were questioned and he had so overextended his credit that he was imprisoned for debt in 1841. He was released upon promise of repayment and in 1843 returned to England. From 1843 to 1845 he was employed as a European correspondent for various London newspapers. He claimed to have been medical superintendent for a minor lunatic asylum at Walton, near Liverpool, from 1845 to 1852. In 1853 he emigrated to Boston where he wrote editorials for the International Journal of New York, Boston, and Portland, Maine, and was listed in local directories as a physician with the Invalid Food Office.

Litchfield came to Canada in 1853, and acted for a time as editor of the Montreal Pilot and Journal of Commerce, a Reform newspaper which supported Francis Hincks*. In March 1855 he was appointed by a Montreal civic committee to head a delegation to promote the city’s manufactures at the Paris exposition. At the same time the ministry of Augustin-Norbert Morin and Allan Napier MacNab appointed him superintendent of the criminal lunatic asylum near Kingston. Litchfield and some male patients resided in J. S. Cartwright*’s house, known as Rockwood, while others were housed in Kingston Penitentiary. After Cartwright’s estate was purchased by the provincial government in 1856 the stables were renovated to house 24 female patients previously confined in the penitentiary. The building of a permanent institution began in 1859, but the gradual transfer of patients from the penitentiary was not effected until construction was completed in 1868. At Rockwood, Litchfield espoused what were considered advanced moral treatment views, and opposed mechanical restraint and segregation for all but the most violent patients.

During his tenure as medical superintendent of the asylum, Litchfield maintained close connections with the fledgling Queen’s College at Kingston. From 1855 until 1860 he held successively the chairs of forensic and state medicine, obstetrics, and, after 1860, institutes of medicine. His lack of credentials became known in Kingston, but his lectures were popular. They ranged widely over such subjects as medical jurisprudence and insanity, the causes of violent insanity, and contemporary improvements in understanding the causes and in the treatment of lunatics.

Litchfield was also active in civic affairs, and in 1860 was elected president of the Kingston Electoral Division Society for Promoting Agriculture, Horticulture, Manufacture, and Works of Art. After 1861 he withdrew from this association to become a member of the Botanical Society of Kingston. By 1865 he was ailing and no longer able to continue his numerous interests. Litchfield remained as titular head of Rockwood Asylum for the next three years, and died of heart disease in his own hospital at age 60.

Litchfield had demonstrated an uncommon adaptability in his chosen professions of journalism and medicine. There are sufficient grounds to suspect his credentials, although not his abilities, as a practitioner of both. The literary achievements which he himself professed cannot readily be verified in the anonymous underworld of Victorian popular culture. His medical qualifications were twice proven false, first in South Australia and later in Canada. Yet he seems to have been able to master the nuances of practical treatment through careful observations of skilled clinicians, and was alive to new techniques and theories of treatment promulgated in popular medical journals. By the 1850s he had acquired enough experience both as a newspaperman and an urbane exponent of moral treatment to erase his earlier embarrassment in Adelaide. Times had also changed, and the second discovery at Rockwood that Litchfield lacked a medical degree went virtually unnoticed in the prosperous colony of Canada West in the 1850s. As an esteemed professor of Kingston’s expanding college, Litchfield was beyond formal rebuke and even moral reproach.

A. W. Rasporich and I. H. Clarke

[The authors would like to thank Dr George K. Raudzens and Janet K. Cooper of Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, for their research assistance.  a.w.r. and i.h.c.]

John Palmer Litchfield was the author of “The acarus scabiei,” which appeared in Lancet (London), I (1835–36), 251–52. Other writings he claimed are listed in Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis, 226–27. QUA, Thomas Gibson, “The astonishing career of John Palmer Litchfield, first professor of forensic medicine at Queen’s University, Kingston” (typescript, c. 1939). Daily British Whig (Kingston), 1855–68. The institutional care of the insane in the United States and Canada, ed. H. M. Hurd (4v., Baltimore, Md., 1916–17), IV.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

A. W. Rasporich and I. H. Clarke, “LITCHFIELD, JOHN PALMER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/litchfield_john_palmer_9E.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/litchfield_john_palmer_9E.html
Author of Article:   A. W. Rasporich and I. H. Clarke
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   November 29, 2023