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MILLS, THOMAS WESLEY, physician, physiologist, veterinary scientist, educator, and author; b. 22 Feb. 1847 in Brockville, Upper Canada, son of James Mills and Alice Welch; m. first Eleanor — (d. 1901), and they had one daughter; m. secondly September 1903 Kate Samuels; d. 13 Feb. 1915 in London, England.

Wesley Mills was a versatile and innovative biological scientist and Canada’s first professional physiologist. As a student at University College, Toronto, where he matriculated in arts in 1867, he showed a strong inclination towards philosophy, but he also joined the scientific study circle of James Bovell* at the Toronto School of Medicine. He was known in that circle for his inquiring and critical mind. After graduating in 1871 (he obtained an ma the following year), he taught for two years at the high school in Elora in order to finance further studies. He then went to Montreal to pursue a career as a classical violinist, but he encountered an old Toronto classmate, William Osler, professor at McGill College, who persuaded him to study medicine. Mills entered the medical faculty of McGill in 1876 and graduated with high honours in 1878.

For the next two years Mills served as resident physician at the City Hospital in Hamilton, Ont. His musical interests inspired him to specialize in laryngology, which he studied in England under Morell Mackenzie. During the same sojourn in England he also spent some time at University College, London, in the physiology laboratory of John Scott Burdon-Sanderson and Edward Albert Schafer. In 1881 he returned to Montreal to practise laryngology, but once again Osler intervened, taking him on privately as his demonstrator in physiology at the medical faculty. Mills abandoned his laryngology practice after three years to devote himself entirely to research and teaching in physiology.

Mills probably owed to Osler many of the contacts which enabled him to acquire an excellent postgraduate education. During 1882–83 he was back at University College, London; he also worked with Henry Newell Martin, a student of Thomas Henry Huxley, in the biology laboratories at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore (where he would spend a second period of study in 1885). On his return to Montreal in October 1883 Mills was formally appointed by McGill as a demonstrator of practical physiology and histology. Much of the spring of 1884 was spent in Strasbourg (France), with the eminent physiologists Felix Hoppe-Seyler and Friedrich Goltz, and in Berlin (with Osler) at the laboratory of Hugo Kronecker, a physiological chemist whose research on the heart strongly influenced Mills’s first publications. When Osler left Montreal for Philadelphia in 1884, Mills replaced him in the teaching of physiology, becoming first a lecturer, then a professor in 1886, and finally the Joseph Morley Drake professor of physiology in 1891.

Primarily a scientist and a science educator, Mills taught within a faculty which viewed physiology as a preclinical science rather than as an end in itself. Mills, on the other hand, held that medicine was applied biology, and ought to be taught as such. His views led to friction with his colleagues and sometimes his students; neither could satisfy his ideal that “all medical students . . . be medical philosophers and . . . delve into the mysteries of psychology and philosophy.” The textbooks he produced for his courses at McGill included an extensive series of laboratory exercises, to be carried out in a university physiology laboratory which was the first of its kind in Canada. Mills also innovated by incorporating experiments on living animals into the teaching of physiology and he even raised his own laboratory animals on the grounds of his home in Westmount. His approach to physiology was also strongly comparative. He taught physiology and cynology at the Montreal Veterinary College, later the faculty of comparative medicine and veterinary science of McGill, from which he obtained a doctorate in veterinary medicine in 1890. As early as 1885 he had founded the Society for the Study of Comparative Physiology in connection with the veterinary college, and over time the trend of his publications began to take a marked turn in the direction of animal physiology.

Mills published a number of purely medical articles, but they constitute a minor segment of his output, and their number dropped off after 1890. His most important writings were in animal physiology (dominant in the period 1884–92), animal psychology (1892–1906), and the physiology of music, particularly voice production (1906–15). His physiological papers included studies on the innervation of the heart in reptiles and fish, as well as on glandular and digestive secretions. He published A text-book of animal physiology . . . (New York and London) in 1889, revised as A text-book of comparative physiology . . . in 1890. Mills’s first sortie into the field of comparative psychology was a paper on the habits and intelligence of squirrels, read before the Royal Society of Canada in 1887. This was followed by studies of developmental psychology and cortical cerebral localization, and culminated in the publication of The nature and development of animal intelligence (New York, 1898). His research on behavioural development was innovative, as was his defence of testing animals in conditions closely resembling those of their natural environment, rather than in puzzle boxes. He stressed the value of observational studies and the importance of individual differences, and drew out implications for the theory of evolution. Although his views were attacked by American psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike and others, Mills is acknowledged as one of the pioneers in the study of behavioural development. He was one of the first additional members of the American Psychological Association appointed at its inaugural meeting in 1892. All Mills’s research was carried out in close cooperation with the Montreal Veterinary College, with whose principal, Duncan McNab McEachran*, he seems finally to have found a satisfying collegial relationship. His interest in applied veterinary science emerges in publications such as How to keep a dog in the city (New York, 1891) and The dog in health and disease . . . (New York, 1892).

His first study of the physiology of voice production was published in the Journal of Physiology (London) in 1884, but his reputation outside medical circles as an expert in this area rests on his Voice production in singing and speaking . . . (Philadelphia and London, 1906). A fourth edition of Voice production was published in 1913 and a sixth edition posthumously. Mills also taught voice hygiene in the McGill Conservatorium of Music, and, after 1899, in the music department of the Royal Victoria College.

Elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 1890, Mills served as president of section iv in 1896 and 1903. He was president of the Natural History Society of Montreal in 1894 and a member of numerous medical and scientific societies.

In 1906 Mills underwent a prostatectomy and in 1910 he retired from McGill because of declining health. He moved to London with his second wife, an Australian opera singer; there he died in 1915, following a heart attack. Those who knew Mills best, especially Osler, recognized his genius as a scientist, but frankly acknowledged his humourless, unaccommodating, sententious, and somewhat querulously self-righteous personality. His relationship with the medical faculty was never happy. He felt unappreciated and misunderstood by most of his colleagues and his research interests became increasingly remote from issues directly applicable to medicine. He never formed a coherent laboratory organization or a lineage of students. It is significant that in 1892 the faculty appointed an assistant to Mills, William Stairs Morrow, who was both popular with the students and doing research on the medically relevant subject of the venous pulse, a topic which the advent of electrocardiography a decade later would make even more important. Mills’s isolation and the diffuse character of his research interests resulted in a somewhat inconclusive scientific career, whose importance is still difficult to assess today.

Faith Wallis

Mills’s laboratory, library, and research materials were destroyed in the fire that demolished McGill University’s faculty of medicine in 1907. During his retirement he assembled 86 scrapbooks of annotated clippings on political and cultural events (especially on opera and theatre), a collection now housed in McGill Univ. Libraries, Dept. of Rare Books and Special Coll., ms coil., MS 218. Mills’s career at McGill can be followed through the minutes of the faculty of medicine (McGill Univ. Arch., RG 38). He was also a sometime member of the faculty’s education committee, whose minutes are also in RG 38. The minutes of the Montreal Medico-Chirurgical Soc. (McGill Univ. Libraries, Osler Library, MS544/38/65/S/4) and those of the Natural Hist. Soc. of Montreal (McGill Univ. Libraries, Blacker-Wood Library, Montreal Natural Hist. Soc. Arch.) document Mills’s participation in these organizations. A handful of contemporary press notices are preserved in the university scrapbooks (McGill Univ. Arch., RG 49).

Little original correspondence from Mills has been traced. Some letters are preserved in the William Drysdale papers (McGill Univ. Libraries, Dept. of Rare Books and Special Coll., ms coll., MS 416), the John William Dawson papers (McGill Univ. Arch., MG 1022), and the papers of Principal William Peterson (RG 2, c.16). A letter from Sir William Osler to Herbert Stanley Birkett concerning Mills’s death is found in the Osler Library, Acc. 326/1.6, and another addressed to Francis John Shepherd is in the Harvey William Cushing papers at Acc. 417/13/116. Details concerning the teaching of physiology at McGill are available in the materials compiled by Frank Campbell MacIntosh in Acc. 894.

Important monographs by Mills, in addition to those cited in the biography, include Outlines of lectures on physiology . . . (Montreal, 1886) and Class laboratory exercises in physiology (Montreal, 1893). Incomplete listings of his articles are available in RSC, Trans., 1st ser., 12 (1894), proc.: 60–61, and Science and technology biblio. (Richardson and MacDonald). The following items, not listed in either of these bibliographies, are relevant to this biography: numerous entries in A reference handbook of the medical sciences . . . , comp. A. H. Buck (9v., New York, 1885–93); “The Montreal Veterinary College and its founder and principal,” Journal of Comparative Medicine and Surgery (Philadelphia), 9 (1888): 78–84; “Valedictory address delivered to the graduates in medicine of McGill University, April 1st, 1889,” “Address to the graduating class in medicine of McGill University,” and “A critical estimate of the medical education of the day . . . ,” Montreal Medical Journal, 17 (1889): 721–36, 35 (1906): 465–75, and 39 (1910): 168–96 respectively; “Animal electricity,” in An international system of electro-therapeutics . . . , ed. H. R. Bigelow et al. (Philadelphia, 1894); and “Note” and “Some considerations bearing on the surgeon, the patient, the student, and the nurse . . . ,” British Medical Journal (London), January–June 1903: 846–47, and January–June 1910: 682–86.

Canadian Medical Assoc., Journal (Toronto), 5 (1915): 338–41. H. W. Cushing, The life of Sir William Osler (2v., Oxford, 1925; repr. London and New York, 1940). Mary Cyr, “Books on old violins and 19th-century playing from the bequest of T. Wesley Mills,” Fontanus (Montreal), 3 (1990): 35–14. D. A. Dewsbury, Comparative psychology in the twentieth century (Stroudsburg, Pa, 1984). Lancet (London), 27 Feb. 1915: 466. “The retirement of Wesley Mills,” Montreal Medical Journal, 39 (1910): 196–99.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Faith Wallis, “MILLS, THOMAS WESLEY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 23, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mills_thomas_wesley_14E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mills_thomas_wesley_14E.html
Author of Article:   Faith Wallis
Title of Article:   MILLS, THOMAS WESLEY
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1998
Year of revision:   1998
Access Date:   June 23, 2024