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LAVIOLETTE, PIERRE – Volume VIII (1851-1860)

b. 4 March 1794 in Boucherville, Lower Canada


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

Original title:  Photograph Dr. J. Andrew Macphail, Pen and Pencil Club, about 1900 About 1900, 19th century or 20th century Silver salts on paper mounted on card - Albumen process 11.3 x 8 cm MP-1992.11.12 © McCord Museum Keywords: 

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MACPHAIL, Sir ANDREW (baptized John Andrew McPhail, he would sign Andrew Macphail from about 1893), teacher, journalist, physician, university professor, author, editor, agricultural experimenter, and army officer; b. 24 Nov. 1864 in Orwell, P.E.I., fourth of the ten surviving children of William McPhail* and Catherine Elizabeth Smith; m. 19 Dec. 1893 Georgina Nightingale Burland (d. 1902) in Montreal, and they had one son and one daughter; d. there 23 Sept. 1938.

Andrew Macphail was the son of a well-respected Scottish-born teacher who became one of the most effective school visitors in 19th-century Prince Edward Island. Shortly before Andrew’s birth, his parents moved into the rural district of Orwell; virtually everyone there was of Scottish origin and an adherent of some form of Calvinism. Andrew attended the two-room grammar school in neighbouring Uigg. In 1880 he obtained a scholarship and proceeded to Charlottetown for two years of study at Prince of Wales College [see Alexander Anderson*], an institution whose high academic standards and classical ideals would permanently mark his outlook. He then taught in rural schools for three years, the last two and a half at Fanning Grammar School in Malpeque. Some 55 miles from Orwell, Malpeque was, in his words, “a new world.” Older, more sophisticated, and more prosperous than his home region, it lacked the evangelical intensity of Orwell, and Macphail spent some of the happiest years of his life there, among people little troubled by ideas of sin, repentance, and self-denial.

The Macphail family had a long tradition of scholarship, and in 1885 Andrew entered Montreal’s McGill University in the second year of the arts program; he would graduate with a ba in 1888 and an md in 1891. City life was much more expensive than he had anticipated, so he took employment as a private tutor and as a journalist for several newspapers. He demonstrated an exceptional capacity for hard work, and by late 1889 was earning $2,000 per year while a full-time student. He also participated in extra-curricular activities, and joined the editorial board of the University Gazette (Montreal), a fortnightly student publication, rising to the position of editor-in-chief in 1889–90. Three days after receiving his md, he signed a contract in New York with a syndicate of news organizations to sail around the world and report on travels that would take him to Great Britain, Europe, Egypt, southern Asia, and Japan.

After returning to Montreal in the fall, Macphail established a medical practice. For the next ten years medicine would dominate his working life. In 1892 he spent several months in London and became a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of London and a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. On 31 May 1893 he was named professor of the diseases of children at Bishop’s College medical faculty, located in Montreal [see Francis Wayland Campbell*]. Less than a year later he took on an additional position at Bishop’s, as professor of pathology and bacteriology. In 1895 and 1896 he was appointed pathologist or visiting physician to a number of Montreal institutions. At the beginning of 1903 he became managing editor of the monthly Montreal Medical Journal.

Macphail’s teaching was interrupted in 1905 when McGill absorbed Bishop’s medical faculty. He had played a leading part in the amalgamation, having become convinced that Bishop’s lacked the resources necessary for an efficient and modern medical school. In 1907 he became the first professor of the history of medicine at McGill, a post he would hold for 30 years; his declared intention in the classroom was to “examine the causes which produced the varying conceptions of medicine in times past,” rather than focus on facts and biographies. He was also, according to Charles Ferdinand Martin, a McGill colleague who would serve as dean of medicine from 1923 to 1936, “a fervent advocate of a curriculum which exposed the student as early as possible to the patient, believing that too much laboratory training in the primary years obscured the main human issues involved in the practice of medicine.” Macphail was therefore at odds with dominant contemporary attitudes regarding medical education. Yet he was clearly respected within his profession, for he became founding editor of the Canadian Medical Association’s monthly Journal (Toronto) in 1911. He had first promoted such a publication at the annual meeting of the association in September 1907 and had offered to merge the Montreal Medical Journal into the new venture; the proposal was accepted. Over the years he would continue to express controversial views. One example is “An address on American methods in medical education,” which he delivered in 1926 to the Clinical Congress of the American College of Surgeons. Macphail argued that the application of business methods to surgery in the name of efficiency had produced practitioners who approached their work in a mechanical way and who had little understanding of the patient as a whole. His successor as editor of the Journal resisted printing the talk on what Macphail described as “this inhuman system” for fear of giving offence; instead, the British Medical Journal (London) issued it in 1927.

After returning from his travels in 1891, Macphail had become engaged to Georgina (Georgie) Nightingale Burland, the daughter of a prosperous Montreal businessman, George Bull Burland. The couple had probably met as a result of Macphail’s friendship with her brother Jeffrey Hale Burland*, a fellow student at McGill. They married in December 1893, and then spent five months touring Europe. Afterwards, they moved into a row house at 216 Peel Street which was a present from Georgie’s father and would be Macphail’s principal residence for the remainder of his life. Georgie, who had never been robust, died suddenly of diabetes on 22 April 1902 when in New York with Andrew and their two children.

Georgie’s death marked the termination of the predominantly medical phase of Macphail’s career. Although he remained active in teaching and medical journalism, he allowed his private practice to dwindle, and began to display a serious commitment to literature. In the years immediately following 1902 he compiled an anthology of verse on the theme of grief, which he would publish in 1916 as The book of sorrow (London).

In 1897 Macphail had been elected to the Pen and Pencil Club of Montreal, which had been founded seven years earlier for “Social enjoyment and Promotion of the Arts and Letters.” Its membership, all male, consisted of writers and artists who met on alternate Saturday evenings during the colder months of the year, and were expected to either read or unveil something original every month or six weeks. Among the most active were artists William Brymner*, Maurice Galbraith Cullen, and Robert Harris*, and McGill professor of literature Paul Theodore Lafleur. There, Macphail would meet Stephen Butler Leacock*, who joined in 1901 and became his close friend, and he would sponsor physician and poet John McCrae* for membership in 1905. Macphail soon assumed a leading role. Although it was unusual to make presentations at consecutive meetings, commencing on 22 Jan. 1898 he did so for eight successive gatherings. On six of those occasions he contributed poetry, including two readings of sonnets. The meetings were convivial affairs, in part because, as he put it, “artists would discourse upon writings, and … writers would discourse upon pictures.”

The club’s affairs were conducted in English although it had some prominent francophone members. Macphail spoke French adequately but imperfectly, and he sought to increase contacts between the professional elites of the two linguistic communities. While at Bishop’s he had advocated hiring additional staff so as to offer medical courses in French, and at the club he supported a motion to invite journalist and politician Henri Bourassa* to join (there is no indication of a response).

In 1905 Macphail published Essays in Puritanism (Boston), consisting of five papers he had given at the Pen and Pencil Club. He had already demonstrated ability as an essayist: shortly before his graduation in 1891 he had won a contest sponsored by the American Humane Education Society with a defence of vivisection. Juried by Harvard University medical professors, the competition had been open to the English-speaking world. His book featured essays on the lives and times of five individuals, including Puritan leader John Winthrop and journalist and critic Sarah Margaret Fuller, who represented or reacted against Puritanism. Widely reviewed, the collection established Macphail’s position as a serious man of letters. His novel The vine of Sibmah: a relation of the Puritans (New York, 1906), a historical romance set in the Restoration, was less successful. The plot lacks credibility. Yet the fact that he produced it suggested one of his hallmarks as a writer: a willingness to attempt almost any genre at least once.

In 1907 Macphail founded a quarterly, the University Magazine, to succeed the semi-annual McGill University Magazine (Montreal). Although the first issue would list Toronto as the place of publication, subsequent issues indicated Montreal, and the periodical, edited by him, was actually based in his home on Peel Street, and, ultimately, financed by him. Its declared purpose was “to express an educated opinion upon questions immediately concerning Canada; and to treat freely in a literary way all matters which have to do with politics, industry, philosophy, science, and art.” Macphail was able to obtain the nominal sponsorship of the University of Toronto and Dalhousie University in Halifax, as well as that of McGill. He set up an editorial committee of six, drawn from the three universities; it included James Mavor*, Archibald McKellar MacMechan, and William Peterson*. Yet, unmistakably, Macphail was in control. He drew on a wide range of contacts and handled difficult personalities with consummate skill. The magazine also included occasional French-language content, both prose and poetry. His objective was to reach an audience beyond university readers and, insisting upon clear, non-technical writing, he was remarkably successful. The Canadian academic community numbered in the hundreds, and his quarterly had a circulation which at one point, probably in 1912, reached almost 6,000.

Macphail, with 43 pieces, was the most frequent contributor to the University Magazine during its 13-year existence. There he dealt with contemporary public affairs, articulating a comprehensive philosophy of social and political conservatism which found its first expression in imperialism. Focusing on his country’s role within the British empire, he emphasized the common ground between Canada and Britain, the growing maturity of the former colony, and the need for it to assume more responsibility in such matters as imperial defence. “We cannot share in the glory of Empire unless we share in its danger and, to put it bluntly, in the expense of it.” In the public debate over Canada’s future, he was unequivocally on the side of imperial federation and against autonomy. But he opposed categorically British politician Joseph Chamberlain’s statement of 1896 that “Empire is Commerce,” arguing that imperialism was best likened to a familial sentiment. In 1909 he published Essays in politics (London and New York), largely consisting of reprints from his magazine concerning the imperial theme.

With increasing trenchancy, Macphail criticized the advance of industry at the expense of agriculture, a trend he identified with materialism. He was at odds with the national Conservative Party over its support of tariff protectionism. Advocating a rural way of life, over the years he became highly specific about what he meant: traditional, mixed farming. “Pictures of waving wheatfields with sixteen ‘binders’ operating en echelon are not enough. Farming is a way of life. It is that and nothing else. It is not a business.” In a short piece, significantly entitled “Prince Edward Island,” he wrote that “the man who farms only for the money there is in it is a fool, because one who can make money out of farming can make a great deal more out of something else.” He maintained contact with the Island and, commencing with the year of his father’s death, 1905, he spent his summers in the family home, where his mother remained. There he and a younger brother, James Alexander, a professor of engineering at Queen’s College, Kingston, Ont., extolled the benefits of scientific agriculture, and carried out experiments in cultivating potatoes and tobacco. Their intent was to help make farming in their native province, which was losing people in alarming numbers, a viable occupation in the 20th century.

As the first decade of the century came to an end, Macphail denounced modern trends in religion, education, and women’s roles. He set forth his views on these matters in Essays in fallacy (New York), published in June 1910. The book opened with two articles on women. Macphail declared that a woman’s proper sphere was the family, that the machine age was making many of her skills redundant, and that she accordingly sought fulfillment outside the home, with dire consequences for society. This new woman demanded the vote, and one of the essays in Macphail’s book was a forceful attack on the suffrage movement. He also defended traditional concepts of education from the encroachment of utilitarianism, and argued against “the new church” and contemporary demands that religion be socially relevant. It was his critique of feminism that drew the most reaction, and he has been identified by historian Veronica Strong-Boag as a key British-Canadian antifeminist writer. Yet, as editor, he made space in the University Magazine for contrary views: immediately preceding one of his own pieces deploring feminism, he published “Votes for women” by Toronto suffragist Sonia Leathes.

One of Macphail’s frequent themes was the need to mix theory and practice. Prior to the First World War he had advocated preparedness and a military spirit to counteract the enfeebling effects of modern society. When conflict broke out in 1914 he supported Canadian participation, and he insisted on serving despite being in his 50th year and almost blind in one eye as the result of the explosion of a soda bottle in 1911. Promoted captain in March 1915, he sailed for England in May and, from there, for France in September. For 14 months he saw action as a medical officer with the No.6 Field Ambulance, and he was a staff officer close to the front for an additional six months. He kept diaries during his years overseas, and his views changed: he became thoroughly sick of the war. In October 1916 he wrote that “in the afternoon I slept for two hours, and wished I were dead on the Somme … I see no end to the war.” With respect to military service he noted: “The inhumanity … is appalling to me. It is only under the most exceptional circumstances that one can do the slightest favour for a man without breaking some regulation.” His morale reached perhaps its lowest point when he was assigned to be the medical officer attending the execution of a soldier by firing squad. At the end of May 1917 he accepted a transfer to headquarters in London with some relief. In June he was promoted major. On 23 March 1918 he received a knighthood; certainly his contribution to Canadian letters had been important, but his example, as a prominent, middle-aged Canadian who had voluntarily endured great hardship and risked everything for the war effort, was probably crucial to the decision that he be honoured.

Macphail was suffering from glaucoma when he returned to Canada in the spring of 1919, and his eyesight was too poor for reading until the autumn. In his absence the University Magazine, under the control of Peterson, had lost many readers and declined in quality. Whereas Macphail had made it a point of principle to pay contributors, Peterson had ceased that practice as the financial situation worsened. After sending four issues to press, Macphail discontinued the quarterly in 1920. His political and social perspectives were becoming outdated, and in writing to Mavor he admitted fearing “that I am beginning to speak foolishly.” When the young men he had hired to help resume his agricultural experiments abruptly left for western Canada, he abandoned the projects. He experienced additional disability as the result of an apparent assassination attempt in 1921, when a man, seemingly deranged, entered his home and fired several shots, wounding Macphail before killing himself. Macphail spent a month in hospital and never fully recovered his strength. A bullet fragment lodged in his upper right arm periodically caused him much pain and prevented him from sustained use of his writing arm.

Yet Macphail continued to contribute to Canadian cultural life. He provided the first translation into English of Louis Hémon*’s Maria Chapdelaine (Montreal, 1916), which he published in 1921. The novel accorded well with his idealized understanding of Quebec as a bastion of conservatism. A supporter of French-language minority rights, he expressed admiration for the cultural achievements of French Canada and he had translated some French poetry. As a patron of the arts, he encouraged young writers such as James Sinclair Ross*, and he would generously contribute to the Montreal Repertory Theatre, which performed in both English and French, after its foundation in 1929.

His two most controversial books of the post-war period were Official history of the Canadian forces in the Great War, 1914–19: the medical services (Ottawa, 1925) and Three persons (London, 1929). Macphail’s Official history is a passionate defence of the performance by the medical services, and includes serious criticism of the minister of militia and defence, Sir Samuel Hughes*. Three persons is a collection of essays on individuals who had emerged into public prominence during the First World War: British field marshal Sir Henry Hughes Wilson, American diplomat Edward Mandell House, and Thomas Edward Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia. The publication’s distinctiveness lay in Macphail’s method. For sources, he relied almost entirely upon the published reminiscences of each subject. The book caused an immediate sensation in Britain because of his treatment of Wilson as a sycophant and intriguer who had little concern for the loss of life at the front.

Macphail published many essays, short stories, and reviews in the 1920s and 1930s. His essays covered a wide range of topics, including literature, medical history, religion, art, and military history. Among his writings on religion would be a small work entitled The Bible in Scotland (London, 1931). He also wrote dramas, some of which were published in whole or in part. At least one, “Good theatre,” a one-act satire on the Montreal Repertory Theatre, was performed in 1931 by that company. This was a continuation of his desire to attempt different genres; in 1914 in Montreal he had published The land: a play of character in one act with five scenes, which features unhappy and materially oriented city dwellers who privately yearn to renew contact with the soil. It has been identified by Gordon Lester of the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project as “a loose adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew,” and, indeed, a return to the land is presented as the remedy for domestic disharmony caused by the modern woman.

While on Prince Edward Island during the summer of 1938 Macphail suffered a heart attack from which he did not recover. He was taken to Montreal, where he died in hospital, and he was buried with his wife in Mount Royal Cemetery in Outremont (Montreal).

Macphail’s most enduring literary work, The master’s wife, a semi-autobiographical portrait of life in Orwell during the second half of the 19th century, was released posthumously and it has been central to making him an iconic figure in his native province. It is a successful penetration into the inner life of a particular type of Scottish-Canadian community, and a fund of information on its practices and world view; it illuminates unusual subjects such as the complex relationship of farm folk with domestic animals. The master of the title is Macphail’s father, the wife his mother. There is a continuing tension between the religiosity of the husband and the comparatively humanistic attitudes of the wife, whose relatives provide “a pagan refuge from the problems of sin.” The perspective is that of a child, which Macphail likens to “the mind of a dreamer by night,” whose free-associating of remembered and unrelated things “in a fantastic sequence” he describes as having “the force of intense reality.” The technique is as notable as the content.

This book is, like the creation of the University Magazine, one of Macphail’s great successes, possibly his greatest. He worked harder on it than on any other writing; a letter in 1927 to sculptor and educator Robert Tait McKenzie, a friend from student days, reveals that he had a manuscript to mail to him for his opinion, and he continued to revise it for the remainder of his life. It was privately brought to market by his children through a Montreal printing company in 1939, but there was no linkage with an effective system of distribution. Only after it was reprinted by conventional publishers in 1977 and 1994 did it win widespread attention. Mainly owing to The master’s wife, Macphail has been recognized in Prince Edward Island as being, with Lucy Maud Montgomery* and Milton James Rhode Acorn*, at the head of the list of writers drawing inspiration from the province.

One other factor has contributed to Macphail’s reputation in Prince Edward Island. His family property was donated to the provincial government in 1961, but its neglect became a source of public controversy in the late 1980s. Simultaneously with calling an election for 29 May 1989, the administration of Premier Joseph Atallah Ghiz announced that it would provide funds to restore the house. Today the farm features nature trails, a nursery of native plants, and an ecological forestry project; the on-site interpretation presents Macphail as a prophet of sustainable land use. Situated on a narrow, scenic country road, it is a place of great tranquillity.

The recognition of Macphail’s artistry in The master’s wife, the rediscovery of his outspoken advocacy of a rural existence, and the saga of his family property have all raised awareness of his career, his achievements, and his beliefs. Through his insistence that imperialism was grounded in sentiment rather than in commercial considerations, his opposition to tariff protection, his interpretation of farming as a way of life rather than a business, and his performance of agricultural experiments in Prince Edward Island, runs a common thread: his commitment to what he believed was a distinctive society based on solidarity and relative indifference to material calculations. This was his idea of “the good society” and it was under attack by modern trends.

Macphail first came to widespread public attention as an imperialist, and, compared with other major Canadian writers in that tradition, he is particularly noteworthy for the all-encompassing interests expressed in his writings. His holistic approach to society is attributable in part to his medical training, which emphasized the need to understand the patient as a whole. Within Canadian literary history, he stands out as an essayist of international repute, the best Canadian personification of the unspecialized man of letters, an accomplished stylist, and a skilful editor who created the University Magazine. In a characteristic epigram, he advised readers of the first issue of the Canadian Medical Association’s Journal that “easy reading is hard writing.”

Ian Ross Robertson

A comprehensive bibliography of Sir Andrew Macphail’s published writings, as well as a complete list of sources, can be found in the author’s book, Sir Andrew Macphail: the life and legacy of a Canadian man of letters (Montreal, 2008). Readers may also wish to consult the author’s “Sir Andrew Macphail as a social critic” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1974).

The Macphail papers were examined while they were in the custody of his daughter, Dorothy Cochrane Lindsay; most of the material was subsequently transferred to LAC, where it has become part of the Andrew Macphail fonds (R2364-0-6). Another important source is the minute-books of the Pen and Pencil Club (P139) held by the McCord Museum (Montreal). In addition to the information they contain on his club activities, the four volumes provide the titles of several of his poems, few of which are known to have survived. Macphail’s holograph will, dated 27 March 1935, with a codicil of 18 Feb. 1937, is held at BANQ-CAM (CT601-S1, 26 Nov. 1938). The article by his friend S. [B.] Leacock, “Andrew Macphail,” Queen’s Quarterly (Kingston, Ont.), 45 (1938–39): 445–52 is an unequalled evocation of Macphail’s personality. In 1990 Katherine Dewar of Charlottetown conducted a series of valuable interviews with persons who remembered Macphail in the period after the First World War; the audio tapes are held at the Univ. of P.E.I., Robertson Library, Univ. Arch. & Special Coll., Sound and Moving Image Arch. (Charlottetown), Acc. 2008-010 (K. Dewar coll.).

The master’s wife (Montreal, 1939; repr., intro. I. R. Robertson, Toronto, 1977; repr., new intro. I. R. Robertson, Charlottetown, 1994) is essential for understanding Macphail. The introduction to the 1994 reprint is considerably longer than that for 1977, and takes into account the recognition accorded Macphail in P.E.I. since the 1970s. K. [A.] Mac[K]innon, “Technique in The master’s wife,” Essays on Canadian Writing (Toronto), 31 (summer 1985): 65–74 and J. K. Keefer, Under eastern eyes: a critical reading of Maritime fiction (Toronto, 1987) have provided the most insightful commentaries on The master’s wife in terms of literary criticism. On Macphail as an essayist, see I. R. Robertson, “Macphail, Andrew,” in Encyclopedia of the essay, ed. Tracy Chevalier (London and Chicago, 1997), 512–13.

Macphail has received relatively little attention from Canadian historians. Carl Berger, The sense of power: studies in the ideas of Canadian imperialism, 1867–1914 (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1970) places him authoritatively within the tradition of Canadian imperialist thought; S. E. D. Shortt, in The search for an ideal: six Canadian intellectuals and their convictions in an age of transition, 1890–1930 (Toronto and Buffalo, 1976), argues that his perspective is explained by a commitment to idealist philosophy, but is unconvincing. See also S. E. D. Shortt, “Essayist, editor, & physician: the career of Sir Andrew Macphail, 1864–1938,” Canadian Literature (Vancouver), 96 (spring 1983): 49–58, and the commentary by I. R. Robertson, “Andrew Macphail: a holistic approach,” Canadian Literature, 107 (winter 1985): 179–86. On Macphail’s anti-feminism, see Veronica Strong-Boag, “Independent women, problematic men: first- and second-wave anti-feminism in Canada from Goldwin Smith to Betty Steele,” Social Hist. (Ottawa), 29 (1996): 1–22. For a perceptive summary of his wartime service, see David Campbell, “I would not have missed it for the world: Sir Andrew Macphail’s war,” pts.1–2, Island Magazine (Charlottetown), no.51 (spring-summer 2002): 2–10; no.52 (fall-winter 2002): 2–9.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Ian Ross Robertson, “MACPHAIL, Sir ANDREW (baptized John Andrew McPhail),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 4, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macphail_andrew_16E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macphail_andrew_16E.html
Author of Article:   Ian Ross Robertson
Title of Article:   MACPHAIL, Sir ANDREW (baptized John Andrew McPhail)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2016
Year of revision:   2016
Access Date:   March 4, 2024