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DEVAU, Retor, CLAUDE – Volume IV (1771-1800)

d. 14 April 1784 at Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade (La Pérade, Que.)


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

ROLPH, JOHN, physician, lawyer, and politician; b. 4 March 1793 at Thornbury, Gloucestershire, England, son of Dr Thomas Rolph and Frances Petty; d. 19 Oct. 1870 at Mitchell, Ont.

John Rolph was the second of 18 children. His father, a surgeon, emigrated about 1808, staying briefly at Les Cèdres, Lower Canada, and then settling near Vittoria in Norfolk County, Upper Canada, where he died in 1814. The family was soon respected in the area, and noted for its hospitality. Two of the sons became Church of England clergymen: Romaine studied divinity under John Strachan and served in several parishes in Upper Canada; Thomas lived in England. Another son, George, became a well-known lawyer. A daughter married George Ryerson*.

John Rolph did not accompany his family to Canada, but continued his education in England. In 1809 he was admitted as a student of law at the Inner Temple (London). Immigrating to Upper Canada in 1812, he served during the war as paymaster of the London District militia. He also took up land near Port Talbot and in these years he and members of his family were on excellent terms with the arch-tory, Colonel Thomas Talbot*. In 1817 Rolph took the initiative in inaugurating the “Talbot Anniversary,” honouring the founding of the settlement by the colonel in 1803. Soon afterward Rolph returned to England to resume his education. From 1818 to 1821 he studied both law and medicine at St John’s College, Cambridge, and medicine at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals in London. He also undertook studies leading to a divinity degree. He was called to the bar of the Inner Temple in 1821, and in the same year, soon after his return, to the bar of Upper Canada. In 1826, on a subsequent visit to England, he was admitted by examination to membership in the Royal College of Surgeons. He practised medicine in the province during the 1820s, although he did not apply for and receive his licence until 1829. In 1824 he wrote to Colonel Talbot, asking him to be the patron of the Talbot Dispensatory, which he and Dr Charles Duncombe proposed to establish for the dual purpose of offering free medical advice and instructing students. The dispensatory soon disappeared from sight; it may have been projected mainly to establish good relations with Talbot.

Rolph’s active pursuit of two professions made him widely known in the London District. On 2 Sept. 1824 William Lyon Mackenzie in the Colonial Advocate stated that “there are thousands in the district, whom he has been the means of restoring to health and strength.” He was soon drawn into politics and was elected in Middlesex County for the House of Assembly in 1824. Rolph now sacrificed whatever friendly ties he had with Talbot and quickly assumed the leadership of those members (soon to be called Reformers) who were opposing the official party (soon to be called the Family Compact); indeed, the assembly sessions from 1825 through 1828 were to a considerable extent dominated by a continuing political duel between Rolph and the attorney general, John Beverley Robinson. In an assembly not noted for learning, a man with Rolph’s thorough and varied education, his good social background, and his powerful (if somewhat florid) eloquence, was best equipped to stand up to the highly competent and masterful attorney general.

Of all the issues before the legislature elected in 1824, the most controversial was the “Alien Question” – whether American-born settlers who had come into Upper Canada since 1783 were aliens and, if so, how they were to be naturalized. The question affected the political status, and possibly the property titles, of over half the province’s population. Despite his English birth, Rolph embraced the cause of the American-born settlers, who were numerous in his own constituency; he saw it as a “popular” cause being attacked by the executive branch and the Legislative Council. More specifically, he denounced the habitual attacks of conservative loyalist members, many of them from the eastern part of the province, on everything American. He called upon Upper Canadians “to give over indulging in worthless slander of our neighbours and friends.” Upper Canada had nothing to fear from American settlers; they had not fled from “a bad government and a barren soil” but had come willingly and were quickly developing a “deep personal interest” in the province and its institutions. After the assembly had passed resolutions demanding that resident American-born settlers be recognized as having all the rights of British subjects, Rolph went to England in the spring of 1826 as a spokesman of the Reform majority in the assembly to try to influence the Colonial Office to respond to the resolutions. In London he was courteously received and consulted and appeared to be satisfied with an act of parliament empowering the provincial legislature to pass a naturalization bill of limited scope; it would have to contain provisions such as a renunciation of allegiance to the United States and a public registry of naturalized Americans which many found repugnant. However, after Rolph returned to Upper Canada he introduced in December 1826 a bill which differed from imperial instructions and made the naturalization process much easier and more palatable to American-born settlers. (There is a certain air of mystery in the whole transaction – as in so many episodes in Rolph’s career.)

The alien controversy reached new heights of bitterness in 1827. After some complicated legislative manœuvring, in which Rolph and Robinson both took leading parts, the assembly reluctantly and somewhat surprisingly passed a bill conforming to the Colonial Office’s instructions, presumably on the assumption that no better measure was obtainable. Reformers opposed to the measure were determined on a further appeal to England and once again hoped that Rolph would represent them. He apparently decided that his professional obligations made another lengthy trip impossible and, instead, Robert Randall* was sent. The latter’s mission was completely successful: the act, largely shaped by Robinson, was disallowed, and the assembly was invited to pass a measure to its own liking; it did so in 1828. Because of the leading part he had taken in the assembly Rolph could claim a large share of the credit for this outcome.

From 1825 to 1828 Rolph was also prominent in questions and controversies that were defining and sharpening political alignments in Upper Canada. He harked back to the wrongs done to “the martyred” Robert Fleming Gourlay. He deplored the harsh treatment meted out to his colleague from Middlesex, Captain John Matthews*, whose army pension was suspended for remarks considered sympathetic to the United States. He defended Francis Collins*, editor of the Canadian Freeman, in his quarrels with the administration and, especially, with Robinson. Along with other Reform lawyers he criticized the “persecution” of Judge John Walpole Willis*. In the assembly he spoke against the “exclusive” claims of the Church of England (even though he was a member), attacked all connection between church and state, and defended the Methodists from John Strachan’s criticisms. He sponsored a number of reform measures, most notably in an eloquent speech on a bill to abolish imprisonment for debt. In many of these activities he was closely associated with Marshall Spring Bidwell* and with Dr William Warren Baldwin* and his son Robert*. After the convincing Reform victory in the elections of 1828, and his own easy return in Middlesex, Rolph might have been chosen speaker; in any case in the short, Reform-dominated assembly of 1829–30 an unfriendly Tory observer noted that he led “the house like a flock of sheep.”

Following this intense political activity, however, Rolph was not a candidate in the 1830 elections. One can only guess at his motives: perhaps he had concluded that political action in the assembly was futile as long as it had no control or influence over the lieutenant governor, the Family Compact, and the Legislative Council. Perhaps he had lost touch with his constituency, since he had moved eastward to Dundas some years earlier and had spent much time in York (Toronto), the provincial capital, as well as in England in 1826. Perhaps he had found it impossible to do justice to his two professions and at the same time perform the time-consuming and often thankless duties of a political leader. In fact he was having to choose between law and medicine. Early in 1831 he wrote to Robert Baldwin: “Every day I become less and less efficient in these Law matters” and a few months later to W. W. Baldwin: “My time is wholly occupied in medical practice – I think of no other pursuit, I engage in no other: but it is laborious. Country practice must be so. . . .” He was accepting no new suits at law, and about 1832 he transferred the remainder of his practice to his brother George. (He might have been amused if he had known that, shortly afterward, the colonial secretary wrote confidentially to Lieutenant Governor Sir John Colborne that Rolph would be a suitable person for the vacant post of solicitor general.) By early 1832 he had moved to York, where he not only built up his practice but accepted students in what was apparently the only “medical school” in the province at that time. He was also active in establishing the mechanics’ institute in York, where he gave popular lectures on a variety of subjects. Like other doctors in the town, he sought to relieve the sufferings of cholera victims in the epidemics of 1832 and 1834. In the latter year he was married to Grace Haines, of Kingston, a woman of strong character who shared fully in his career, particularly in the administration of his various medical schools. They were to have four children.

Early in 1834 York was incorporated as the city of Toronto, and in the elections for aldermen and councilmen Rolph’s name headed the poll in St Patrick’s Ward. There was general expectation that the Reform majority on council would elect him the city’s first mayor. But the councillors apparently felt the honour should go to Mackenzie in recognition of the “persecutions” he had recently been suffering. When he learned of this plan, Rolph promptly resigned his seat and took no further part in municipal politics, leaving everyone to guess at his motives. Nor was he a candidate in the elections for the assembly in 1834, which resulted in a resounding Reform victory. Rolph’s life now appeared to be devoted almost entirely to the practice and teaching of medicine, although he also served as a director and first president of the People’s Bank, founded in 1835, with many leading Reformers, including Francis Hincks*, active in it.

Nevertheless, it was soon clear that Rolph was still a political force, all the more, perhaps, because he had recently been somewhat out of the public eye. At the end of January 1836 Sir Francis Bond Head* arrived in Toronto to replace Colborne as lieutenant governor. He found that the Executive Council had only three members, and that there was an immediate need to enlarge it. Although he felt instinctively antagonistic to Mackenzie and to the American-born Bidwell, Head was prepared to see the Executive Council broadened by the appointment of suitable men from outside the Tory ranks. Robert Baldwin and Rolph were obvious possibilities. Despite misgivings on Baldwin’s part, he and Rolph, along with John Henry Dunn*, the receiver general, were sworn as members of the Executive Council on 20 Feb. 1836. Rolph and Baldwin were determined to be more than mere ciphers: they wished to be consulted regularly by the lieutenant governor, to have an influential voice in the dispensing of patronage, and to see “the Affairs of the Province . . . distributed into Departments, to the Heads of which shall be referred such matters as obviously appertain to them respectively.” They succeeded in convincing the entire council to prepare a memorandum supporting this stand, which Head later stated had been taken at Rolph’s initiative. The lieutenant governor at once rejected the memorandum, stating that in Upper Canada he alone could be the “responsible Minister,” and inviting the council to resign if they felt that their “Principles” were being compromised. This they did on 12 March, thereby precipitating a political crisis which poisoned the political air of Upper Canada for many months.

Rolph, however, did not take any prominent part in the debate between Head and the “Constitutionalists” on the one side and the Reform and radical leaders of the assembly on the other. He was clearly identified with the Reform side, but with the moderate, “responsible” brand associated with the Baldwins, and not at all with Mackenzie or even with the actions and statements of the assembly majority. Thus he was not especially vulnerable when provincial opinion veered sufficiently to defeat the Reformers in the elections of 1836. It is curious – but unexplained – that Rolph chose this somewhat inauspicious time to return to politics. Although now a resident of Toronto, he stood as a candidate in Norfolk County, where he had long associations and where he was easily elected.

Reformers were outnumbered in the new assembly by more than three to one; with Mackenzie, Bidwell, and Peter Perry* all defeated and with Robert Baldwin still withdrawn from politics, Rolph once again found himself the leader of the party. He appears to have shared to the full the Reformers’ indignation at the methods that, they felt, had been used to defeat them. “Orange violence, bribery and corruption, manufactured deeds, false evidence . . . and malicious official misrepresentation, and ultra tory returning officers, and the like abuses together with the aid of a state paid priesthood, turned the elections against us . . . there is not a baser or more unprincipled government in the world than the one we are now enduring here,” Rolph wrote Baldwin in July 1836. The tone of this letter points to Rolph’s role in the assembly in 1836 and 1837 and it may even help to explain why he was willing to flirt, in his own way, to be sure, with involvement in the rebellion.

In the assembly Rolph could of course achieve no legislative goals against the overwhelming Tory majority, but he could hearten Reformers by his oratory and by his persistent attacks on the Tories and their allies. The hostile Toronto Patriot on 20 Dec. 1836 paid him grudging tribute as “the great leader of the minority, and the only one worth listening to,” while denouncing his “wily sophistry.” His main interventions were two speeches on the clergy reserves in December 1836 and in the following month during the “inquiry into the charges of high misdemeanors at the late elections preferred against Sir Francis Bond Head.” In the first, which was widely reprinted and was in part a debate with Christopher Hagerman*, he asserted that a connection between church and state was always harmful to religion, as was the state endowment of any denomination, and he denied that the Church of England was established in Upper Canada; he ended by moving that the clergy reserves be sold and “the proceeds [be applied] to the purposes of General Education.” It is probable that much of Rolph’s popularity as a Reform leader throughout his long career derived from his eloquent and consistent support for the voluntary principle in religion. The second speech contained a slashing attack upon Head, accusing him of having used “the language of an agitator,” of having treated “the friends of reform . . . as enemies,” and, in appealing “from the throne to the passions of the people as ‘Englishmen, Irishmen, Scotchmen and U.E. Loyalists,’ [of having] forgot, yes sir, forgot the canadians! . . .” Rolph wondered whether Upper Canada would “ever again have a free Election.” It is impossible to know whether this remark was merely a rhetorical flourish or whether it indicated real despair over the prospects for peaceful change.

But, whatever despair Rolph may have felt, he took no visible part in the mobilizing of radical opinion and in the preparations for the armed uprising of December 1837. He and Mackenzie had never been intimates, or even working associates, and like his neighbour in Toronto, M. S. Bidwell, and his friends the Baldwins, he did not associate himself with the little editor’s increasingly frenetic course in the latter months of 1837. How much he knew about Mackenzie’s plans by November and how much he was consulted by Mackenzie are other, and perhaps unanswerable, questions. In the event of success Mackenzie would obviously need men of respectability and standing to assume leading roles and no one was better fitted for such a task than Rolph. Mackenzie later claimed, and went on claiming all his life, that shortly before the outbreak of the rebellion Rolph had agreed to become “the Executive” who would direct operations in secret until the time came to reveal his identity. Rolph denied this claim, and there is no evidence to support Mackenzie’s assertion. But it is clear that Rolph was consulted by Mackenzie and it appears Rolph agreed that Mackenzie should continue to investigate the state of opinion north of the city at the end of October and in November. Later in November he also learned that Mackenzie had fixed on Thursday, 7 December, for the insurgents to assemble north of Toronto and advance on the capital. Rolph apparently had no part in this decision, but he did not report the information to the authorities. His complicity apparently went considerably further: as far as can be gathered, he agreed that in the event of success he would, in John Charles Dent*’s words, “assume the direction of the Civil Government.”

From his vantage point within Toronto and his access to information and rumour, Rolph learned late on 2 December that the government intended to arrest Mackenzie and to take other precautionary measures. Rolph could see the uprising being nipped in the bud and he sent word to Samuel Lount* advising him to move on the city at once with 300 men in order to maintain the advantage of surprise. Lount received the message the next day and the men did begin to assemble at Montgomery*’s Tavern on Monday, 4 December. Mackenzie was furious at this turn of events, for there was still much to do before an effective operation could be mounted. On this same day, he conferred with Rolph outside the city, when the latter apparently advised abandoning the uprising. But it was now too late, and the men were moving down Yonge St.

On Tuesday, 5 December, occurred the single most controversial episode in Rolph’s long career. In the morning Head decided to send a message to the rebels, under a flag of truce, advising them to return peacefully to their homes. After one or two other names had been canvassed, Robert Baldwin and Rolph were selected and agreed to undertake the mission. They met with the rebel leaders, who insisted on having the lieutenant governor’s message in writing. Baldwin and Rolph returned to the city, only to find that Head had determined not to parley further with the rebels. They delivered this message to the rebels, again under a flag of truce, and the mission was at an end. The controversy surrounding this affair started a little more than a month later when Lount was captured and made a statement, prior to his execution, that on the first trip, Rolph “gave me a wink to walk on one side, when he requested me not to hear the message but to go on with our proceedings.” If this account was correct, Rolph had obviously played a double, indeed a traitorous, role, posing as the trusted envoy of the lieutenant governor while counselling the rebels to attack the city. Rolph’s version was that he had given this advice to Lount on the second trip, after he had delivered Head’s message and when the truce mission was at an end.

Upon his return to the city in the middle of Tuesday afternoon Rolph apparently busied himself in urging radicals to arm themselves to join with Mackenzie’s men, who were expected imminently. But hours passed and in the evening it was learned that the rebels, after an exchange of fire with an outpost guard, had precipitately retreated. As midnight approached and the loyal forces were clearly gaining strength and confidence, Rolph realized the insurgents’ cause was hopeless and he sent out a messenger advising them to disperse. So far, his implication in the movement had not come to the attention of the authorities, but when on the morning of 6 December Dr Thomas David Morrison* was arrested and officials began to search Mackenzie’s house and office, Rolph perceived that evidence of his complicity would probably come to light. With his accustomed self-control he casually walked westward from the centre of town to a spot where one of his medical students had a saddled horse waiting. He was stopped once by loyalist volunteers but allowed to pass after a doctor (a former student of his) vouched for him, and after riding all night he reached the Niagara River and exile in the United States. On 11 December the lieutenant governor issued a proclamation stating that facts had come to his knowledge indicating that Rolph “had been concerned in the traitorous attempt . . . to subvert the Government of this Province” and offering a reward of £500 for his apprehension. Head later stated to Lord Glenelg that “Dr Rolph has been proved to have been the . . . most crafty, the most bloodythirsty, the most treacherous, the most cowardly, and . . . the most infamous of the traitors who lately assailed us.” He further noted that on 20 Jan. 1838 Rolph, accused of having “combined, conspired and confederated, with the rebels,” had been expelled from the assembly.

Rolph lived for more than five years in the United States, mainly in Rochester. At first he showed some interest in the Patriot activities along the border, and he occasionally corresponded with exiles from both Upper and Lower Canada. But he soon dissociated himself from such activities and began to re-establish himself as a doctor and medical teacher. Some Canadian students came to study under him. He managed to get a good deal of his property out of Toronto and he was presently joined by his wife. No doubt exile was bitter, but his was a good deal more comfortable than that of many who had been implicated in the rebellion, including Mackenzie, who later insisted that Rolph had failed to befriend him when he had been jailed in Rochester. Such aloofness on Rolph’s part was not only characteristic but also not surprising in view of the accusations Mackenzie had been publishing. Mackenzie asserted that he had been the mere agent of the “Executive,” John Rolph, that Rolph had ruined any chances of success by changing the date of the rebellion, and that his appearance with the flag of truce had discouraged the rank and file of the insurgents. Rolph prepared but did not publish a “Review of Mackenzie’s publications . . . ,” in which he accused Mackenzie of endangering the lives and liberty of Reformers by leaving evidence of the rebels’ plans in Toronto and by publicizing the names of those associated with the movement. He laid the failure of the rebellion to Mackenzie’s own mismanagement, especially the tardiness in moving on the city after the end of the flag of truce mission. The review, found later among his papers, was in the third person and, as usual, volunteered no information about Rolph’s own actions or motives.

A grant of amnesty in 1843 permitted Rolph to return to Toronto that August. The event was greeted on a strictly party basis: the Examiner welcomed the return “of a man whose profound talents are calculated to ornament any department of life”; in the legislature Dr William Dunlop* remarked that Rolph and others “kept back and pushed better men than themselves forward to bear the brunt of the contest. If the sleek and wily traitor, Rolph, was to be pardoned . . . why not Mackenzie?” Rolph resumed his old residence and soon re-established his medical school and practice. At this time King’s College was just getting under way, and Rolph’s school was aimed at “medical students who do not intend to enter the University. . . . They would be conducted through the usual course of medical studies . . . and prepared for their diploma from the Medical Board.” He assembled a competent staff, and for a time the school – incorporated in 1851 as the Toronto School of Medicine – flourished.

Meanwhile, Rolph had reappeared as a controversial figure in the public prints. In April 1848 the government of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine dismissed Dr Walter Telfer*, the medical superintendent of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto, and replaced him with Dr George Hamilton Park, a brother-in-law of Rolph. There were adequate reasons for the dismissal and Park appears to have been suitably qualified for the post, but in a small community intensely interested in patronage and riddled with personal animosities, the incident became the centre of bitter partisan recriminations in the newspapers. Matters were intensified when Rolph, serving as acting superintendent in Park’s absence, clashed with the asylum’s board of commissioners. Personal relations between Baldwin and Rolph had never been fully restored after the flag of truce incident, and supporters of Baldwin saw Rolph’s actions in a sinister light. James Hervey Price* called him “a black hearted rascal,” determined “either to destroy the Baldwin ministry or to compel that ministry to alter the Bill for the Lunatic Asylum giving all power to Park that Rolph and his medical School might rule it for the School’s benefit.” The rift was widened when the Baldwin government dismissed Park in January 1849.

This incident coincided with a deepening split in the Reform party, as its radical or “democratic” wing (coming to be called the Clear Grits) became increasingly impatient with the Baldwin government’s moderate and cautious policies. By-elections from 1849 to 1851 marked the growing strength of this group and in the fall of the latter year the tired and discouraged Baldwin resigned. It fell to Francis Hincks to reconstruct the Upper Canadian portion of the government and he decided that party harmony dictated the inclusion of two Clear Grits in the cabinet. The man above all others whom the Grits wanted included was Rolph.

Why they wanted him is less clear. As so often it is uncertain what part Rolph had played in the rise of the Clear Grits, although he was accused of writing anonymous anti-Baldwin articles in the Examiner. Perhaps the Clear Grits simply wanted a ‘spokesman in the cabinet who was a powerful orator and who had been identified with Reform principles for more than a quarter-century. The Examiner asserted, “There is not a man in the entire ranks of our party whom the tories dread half as much as Dr. Rolph.” In fact, however, as the Globe noted in November, Hincks had made a master stroke. Once two of their number (Malcolm Cameron* was the other) had accepted the responsibilities of office, the Clear Grits were bottled up and rendered ineffective.

Rolph was appointed commissioner of crown lands when the government of Hincks and Augustin-Norbert Morin took office on 28 Oct. 1851. Governor General Lord Elgin [Bruce], perhaps worried that the colonial secretary might query the inclusion in the government of one “whose conduct in 1837 was not above reproach,” noted that “He is an Englishman, educated at one of the Universities and has a brother a Rector.” Besides, the cry of “rebel” had lost much of its force since the Tory violence of 1849. In the general elections some weeks later, Rolph was a candidate in Norfolk County and was easily elected. In fact, his popularity with Clear Grits was so great that his name was mentioned as a possible candidate in several other constituencies.

The Hincks-Morin government, which held power until September 1854, was not especially distinguished, and Rolph did little to make it more so. He carried on a personal quarrel with his Clear Grit colleague Malcolm Cameron, and he further weakened the morale of the Grits by failing to press within the government for measures to which Grits were committed, including the secularization of the clergy reserves. Rolph developed a considerable talent for disappearing when critical votes were to be taken. He was apparently rather ineffective in the Crown Lands Department and was shifted to the presidency of the council and the Bureau of Agriculture in 1853. One observer felt that as a minister Rolph “showed how little talent he really possessed.” By 1853 many Reformers were turning against him because of his continued association with Hincks despite the fact that the latter’s railway deals were coming to light. The Globe denounced Rolph as “a sleek visaged man . . . deep, dark, designing, cruel, malignant, traitorous . . . [whose] manners are civil and insinuating. . . . It is thought that he is an agile man – he is certainly a slippery one.” Hincks, who himself had often enough been the target of the Globe’s attacks, came to share this harsh assessment when Rolph, dissatisfied with Hincks’ policies and wishing to re-establish his standing with independent Reformers, deserted the government in September 1854. The ministry collapsed, and the two men parted amid mutual recriminations.

Three incidents in Rolph’s life during the years of the Hincks-Morin government are worth noting. The first was the revival of the flag of truce controversy by a Conservative member from Toronto, William Henry Boulton*. Rolph had apparently been expecting an attack for he had taken the trouble, two months earlier, of securing an affidavit from Hugh Carmichael, who had been the bearer of the flag and was now in Rolph’s employ, which completely corroborated Rolph’s version: it stated that during the actual mission Rolph did not communicate separately with Lount or say “anything irrelevant to the Flag of Truce or against its good faith.” Boulton accepted Rolph’s explanations, but another member of the assembly, none other than Mackenzie, felt called upon to defend Lount’s memory, and to go back over the whole story, in speeches, editorials, and, finally, a pamphlet. On Rolph’s behalf, David Gibson prepared a reply to Mackenzie, but Rolph did not use it; he wrote to Gibson that “the time has not yet arrived” to “repel” Mackenzie’s charges.

The second incident involved that old source of controversy, the lunatic asylum. In 1853 the government, at Rolph’s behest, secured the passage of a bill reorganizing the asylum; subsequently Dr Joseph Workman*, an associate of Rolph’s, was appointed medical superintendent and another member of Rolph’s school was made consulting physician. The reorganization improved the administration of the asylum, but to his critics the whole episode was but another example of Rolph’s labyrinthine ways.

The third incident also raised the suspicion that Rolph used his influence in government to serve the interests of his medical school. In these years the legislature was sitting in Quebec, and Rolph was perforce removed from his school. Letters from his staff indicated that it was in a state of decline, unable to meet the competition of the medical faculty of the University of Toronto, and also probably suffering the competition of the recently formed Upper Canada School of Medicine, affiliated with Trinity College. In 1852–53 a bill passed through the legislature reorganizing the university by making it an examining and not a teaching body and thus abolishing instruction in the faculties of medicine and law. Rolph’s school was no longer faced with competition from the university.

In the 1854 election following the break-up of the Hincks-Morin ministry, Rolph was re-elected in Norfolk, but he was now in opposition. He remained in the legislature until 1857 but attended infrequently, now more than ever a relic from a former age.

In his last 15 years Rolph resumed his career as a medical administrator, but with limited success. In 1854 the Toronto School of Medicine became affiliated with Victoria College, thus enabling its graduates to secure degrees from that institution, even though the latter was still located in Cobourg. Two years later, however, Rolph’s entire staff resigned on the same day to remove themselves from his ineffective and autocratic leadership. They established a rival institution under the old name, and by legal action prevented Rolph from further using that name. Nevertheless, Rolph’s students remained loyal to him; he secured new staff and continued as dean of the medical faculty of Victoria College, which conferred an honorary lld on him in 1859. For the next decade Rolph was still highly regarded as a teacher, and still practised his profession, despite failing powers following a stroke in 1861. He no longer had the capacity to function effectively as dean, but refused to relinquish control. Finally, early in 1870, he was, in effect, forced to retire, and he went to live with his daughter and son-in-law in Perth County, where he died a few months later.

At the time of his death the controversies associated with Rolph’s political career had receded into the distant past; there was a general willingness to pay tribute to him as a Reform leader, a medical teacher, and an orator, and to gloss over his weaknesses. But 15 years later dispute again erupted with the publication of the first volume of Dent’s The story of the Upper Canadian rebellion, which disparaged Mackenzie and praised Rolph. Old Reformers sprang to the defence of Mackenzie, revived all the earlier charges against Rolph as devious, cunning, and self-seeking, and probably helped establish the picture of him that has widely prevailed. Rolph’s own habitual secretiveness and the absence of adequate personal papers make it difficult now to draw a full and sympathetic portrait. But his contributions to the emerging reform movement in the 1820s and to medical education over a longer period will continue to be remembered, and the intricacies of his personality will continue to fascinate.

G. M. Craig

There are David Gibson papers in the possession of S. E. Gibson, Willowdale, Ont. (mfm. at PAO). Academy of Medicine, Toronto, William Thomas Aikins papers. MTCL, Robert Baldwin papers; William Warren Baldwin papers; J. H. Richardson, Reminiscences of the medical profession in Toronto, 1829–1905 (typescript). PAC, MG 24, B24; B40, J. H. Price to George Brown, 28 Dec. 1848. PAO, Clarke (Charles) papers; Macaulay (John) papers, R. Stanton to J. Macaulay, 21 Jan. 1830; Mackenzie-Lindsey papers. PRO, CO 42/380. Victoria University Library (Toronto), Victoria University records, papers relating to the Medical Department. “Dr. John Rolph’s own account of the flag of truce incident in the rebellion of 1837,” ed. C. B. Sissons, CHR, XIX (1938), 56–59. Elgin-Grey papers (Doughty), III, 917. F. B. Head, A narrative (London, 1839). [John Rolph], The speech of the Hon. John Rolph, M.P.P., delivered on the occasion of the late inquiry into charges of high misdemeanors at the late elections, preferred against His Excellency Sir Francis Bond Head . . . (Toronto, 1837). Speeches of Dr. John Rolph and Christop’r A. Hagerman . . . on the bill for appropriating the proceeds of the clergy reserves to the purposes of general education . . . (Toronto, 1837). U.C., House of Assembly, Journal, 1825–38. Canadian Freeman (York [Toronto]), 1825–27. Colonial Advocate, 1826–34. Examiner (Toronto), 1843–44, 1848. Globe, 1848–54. Long Point Reformer (Simcoe, [Ont.]), 1853–54. Mackenzie’s Gazette (New York), 1838. Mackenzie’s Weekly Message (Toronto), 1852–54, including “extra” issued as Head’s flag of truce, or a defence of the memory of the late Colonel Samuel Lount . . . ([Toronto, 1854]). North American (Toronto), 1850–51. Simcoe Standard and Agricultural, Commercial, and Literary Gazette (Simcoe, [Ont.]), 1852.

Canniff, Medical profession in U.C. Dent, Upper Canadian rebellion. C. O. Ermatinger, The Talbot regime; or the first half century of the Talbot settlement (St Thomas, Ont., 1904). [John King], The other side of the “story,” being some reviews of Mr. J. C. Dent’s first volume of “The story of the Upper Canadian rebellion,” and the letters in the Mackenzie-Rolph controversy . . . (Toronto, 1886). Lindsey, Life and times of Mackenzie. G. M. Craig, “Two contrasting Upper Canadian figures: John Rolph and John Strachan,” RSC, Trans., 4th ser., XII (1974), sect.ii, 237–48. N. B. Gwyn, “A chapter from the life of John Rolph,” Academy of Medicine, Toronto, Bull., IX (1935–36), 137–44. John Muggeridge, “John Rolph – a reluctant rebel,” OH, LI (1959), 217–29. M. A. Patterson, “The life and times of the Hon. John Rolph, M.D. (1793–1870),” Medical History (London), V (1961), 15–33.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

G. M. Craig, “ROLPH, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 14, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/rolph_john_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/rolph_john_9E.html
Author of Article:   G. M. Craig
Title of Article:   ROLPH, JOHN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   April 14, 2024