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REID, ALEXANDER PETER, doctor, professor, and asylum superintendent; b. 22 Oct. 1836 in London, Upper Canada, son of James Reid and Margaret Ross; m. first 20 Sept. 1875 Eleanor M. Robinson in Halifax; m. secondly after 1911 Harriet — ; d. 3 March 1919 in L’Ardoise, N.S.

Alexander Reid, whose career spanned the half-century between confederation and World War I, was an articulate and prolific proponent of the social benefits of scientific understanding. He received his early education at both private and public schools in London, but when he was 12 his father, a Scottish artisan who had emigrated to Upper Canada in the 1820s, withdrew him, arguing that he was receiving too little practical knowledge. Alexander continued to study at home while working with his father as a cooper’s assistant. In 1854 he enrolled in the faculty of medicine at McGill College in Montreal, and three years later he won the materia medica prize for an essay on the nature of strychnia and its potential uses. In the laboratory Reid had recorded the mortality of cats, dogs, and pigeons in relation to the amount of strychnine applied, and concluded that in carefully regulated doses strychnine was effective in the treatment of ague and in the prevention of constipation.

Even in the earliest stages of his career Reid demonstrated an exuberant and sometimes naïve faith in science. In 1857 he travelled to the United Kingdom to study in London, Dublin, and Edinburgh. There he became au courant with the latest controversies in the field of medicine, including the debate between John Hughes Bennett and Thomas Laycock at Edinburgh over the value of bleeding and purging patients. Reid’s observations were published in a series of letters to the Medical Chronicle of Montreal in 1857 and 1858. He graduated from McGill in 1858, having presented an expanded version of his prize essay as his md thesis, and received his licentiate from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh the same year.

After practising medicine briefly near his London birthplace, Reid went to the Red River settlement (Man.), where his interest in scientific observation led him to study not only the migration patterns of birds and the behaviour of skunks, but human subjects as well. An amateur anthropologist, he was convinced that scientific principles of classification could be applied to human society. Reid turned his attention to the “mixed-race” population of the North-West Territories, identifying nine categories of peoples, and commenting upon their physical and social characteristics. Reid would eventually present his conclusions in a paper published by the Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1875.

In 1864 Reid settled in Halifax, where he soon became a leading figure in a movement to upgrade the professional and scientific status of Nova Scotia’s doctors. A charter-member of the scientific branch of the Halifax Medical Society in 1867 and founding president of the Clinical Society of Halifax, established in 1869, Reid gained notoriety as the original proponent of the germ theory in the region. In 1868 Reid became the first dean of the new faculty of medicine at Dalhousie University, and he was later president of the Halifax Medical College, where he held at various times the chairs of physiology, the practice of medicine, hygiene, and medical jurisprudence.

Reid’s 14-year career as superintendent of the Nova Scotia Hospital for the Insane, which began in 1878, provides another indication of his interest in applying quasi-scientific principles of classification to society. Despite his pessimism about the asylum as a curative institution, Reid’s observations of the patients led him to promote the idea of social engineering and to flirt with eugenics. In Stirpiculture, or, the ascent of man, read before the Nova Scotian Institute of Natural Science in 1890, he put forward a program of racial improvement based upon selective breeding and sterilization of the “unfit,” which he believed would contribute to social progress. Like many left-wing eugenicists, Reid also called for a reformed capitalist system, in which the state would regulate the relationship between capital and labour, protecting the weak and reducing destructive class antagonism. In Poverty superseded: a new political economy . . . , he suggested that poverty would not be overcome until “society, as represented by Government, undertakes – I would say will be forced to undertake – the regulation of industry.”

During the 1890s Reid served briefly as the superintendent of the Victoria General Hospital, but his preoccupation at this time was to establish an efficient public health system in Nova Scotia. He served successively as secretary to the Provincial Board of Health, beginning in 1893, and from 1904 as provincial health officer until his retirement in 1913. By the end of the century he had moved from Halifax to Middleton. In addition to his Middleton home, Reid kept a farm at nearby Nictaux, which was known to employ the latest scientific practices, and where he experimented in the growing of special crops, including tobacco. Reid later moved with his second wife, Harriet, to L’Ardoise, in Richmond County, where he died in 1919. In his will he set up a number of “perpetual self-help funds,” to be used for loans to needy or deserving applicants with physical disabilities. Separate funds were established at the Victoria General Hospital, St Mary’s, St Francis Xavier, Acadia, King’s College, and Dalhousie universities, the Halifax School for the Blind, and the Halifax Institution for the Deaf and Dumb. A Catholic in religion, he had served briefly on the board of St Mary’s.

Colin D. Howell

Alexander Peter Reid’s thesis was published as An inaugural dissertation on strychnia . . . (Montreal, 1858); extracts from his prize essay on the same subject appear in the Medical Chronicle (Montreal), 5 (1857–58): 61–67, 111–20, 156–65. Reid’s series “A student’s letters” was published in the same volume: 90–94, 140–42, 379–82, 427–29, 471–73, 512–14. His papers on Stirpiculture and Poverty superseded were issued in Halifax, likely in 1890 and 1891 respectively.

Reid also published many articles in scientific and medical journals. Among the most important are “The mixed or ‘halfbreed’ races of north-western Canada,” Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Journal (London), 4 (1875): 45–52; “Sanitary progress” and “The Public Health Act in Nova Scotia,” in Maritime Medical News (Halifax), 11 (1899): 301–8 and 16 (1904): 311–15; and “Hygienic storage and distribution of water – and fire protection,” Public Health Journal (Toronto), 2 (1911): 553–56. His annual reports as medical superintendent of the Nova Scotia Hospital for the Insane appear in the Journal and proc. of the provincial House of Assembly, app.3a, 1879–93.

Annapolis County Court of Probate (Bridgetown, N.S.), Wills, 4: 18–21 (mfm. at PANS). PANS, Joint Committee on [Medical] Arch. {{ms }}Coll., Medical Soc. of Nova Scotia (Halifax), file 885 (Clinical Soc. of Halifax, minute-book, 1869–84), 6 Oct. 1869, 30 March 1870; MG 20, 181, scientific branch, minutes, 3 Dec. 1867; RG 25, NS, 16, Reid to P. C. Hill, 29 Dec. 1877; RG 32, WB, 65, 20 Sept. 1875. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898 and 1912). C. D. Howell, A century of care: a history of the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax, 18871987 (Halifax, 1988); “Medical science and social criticism: Alexander Peter Reid and the ideological origins of the welfare state in Canada,” in Canadian health care and the state: a century of evolution, ed. C. D. Naylor (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1992), 16–37. McGill College, Faculty of medicine, Annual announcement (Montreal), 1857–58. Angus McLaren, Our own master race: eugenics in Canada, 18851945 (Toronto, 1990). Nova Scotian Institute of Natural Science, Proc. and Trans. (Halifax), 2 (1867–70), pt.2: 3.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Colin D. Howell, “REID, ALEXANDER PETER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 31, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/reid_alexander_peter_14E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/reid_alexander_peter_14E.html
Author of Article: Colin D. Howell
Title of Article: REID, ALEXANDER PETER
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1998
Year of revision: 1998
Access Date: October 31, 2014