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TAIT, JAMES SINCLAIR, physician, politician, office holder, and author; b. 4 March 1849 in Wallace, N.S., son of James Tait and Catherine Sinclair; m. 19 Dec. 1882 Sarah Elizabeth Calkin in St John’s, and they had three sons and two daughters, one of whom died in infancy; d. there 5 July 1928.

After attending schools in Wallace and Amherst, N.S., J. Sinclair Tait went to Mount Allison Wesleyan College in Sackville, N.B., from which he graduated in 1877 with a bachelor of science and English literature. Actively involved in student affairs, he had served as business editor of the Argosy magazine in 1875 and president of the Eurhetorian Society in 1876–77. This society provided opportunities for public speaking, debating, and literary pursuits, which would serve Tait well in his future endeavours. After graduation – Tait would later obtain a ma from Mount Allison (1891) and a bsc ad eundem from Dalhousie in Halifax (1897) – he completed a teacher-training course at the Normal School in Truro, N.S., during the summer of 1877. He spent the next two years teaching in Brigus, Nfld, where he began to study medicine with Dr William Anderson.

Tait had found his vocation. In 1879 he entered medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and he graduated three years later with a first-class honours md. He returned to Brigus, where he practised until 1885, when he went to Britain to continue his studies. The following year he was licensed by the Royal College of Physicians (London) and the Royal College of Surgeons (Edinburgh). When he returned in 1886, he set up practice in St John’s.

It was not long before Tait entered the political arena. In the general election of 1889 he was returned to the House of Assembly as a Liberal in support of Sir William Vallance Whiteway*, in the two-member district of Burin on the south coast. Tait had no previous connection with the area, but parachuting St John’s–based candidates into rural districts was common in 19th-century Newfoundland. In 1893 he spearheaded the passage of a bill to regulate the practice of medicine and surgery. The first legislation of its kind in the colony, it led to the establishment of a seven-member medical board [see William Munden Allan*]. Tait was re-elected in the contest of 1893, which was quite acrimonious, even by Newfoundland standards. On 6 Jan. 1894, the last possible day for challenges under the Corrupt Practices Act, the Conservatives brought charges of bribery and corruption against 15 of the successful Liberals, including Tait, and against independent member James Murray. Each was found guilty and forced to relinquish his seat, and all except one were barred from future political office. This last penalty was removed by statute the following year, enabling Tait to make an unsuccessful bid to return to the assembly in 1897.

Although Tait’s conviction brought his career as an assemblyman to a close, it did not end his partisan involvement. He was the recipient of several patronage appointments, including posts as secretary and registrar of the Newfoundland Medical Board (1894–1909) and membership on the St John’s Board of Health (1904–9). As well, he was a public health officer and a visiting surgeon and physician at the St John’s General Hospital. His most lucrative appointment was as medical superintendent (1895–97, 1900–7) and resident physician (1902–7) at the Hospital for the Insane in Waterford (St John’s).

Tait’s first formal involvement with this hospital, which was known as the Newfoundland Asylum until 1899, had occurred in 1890 when he was appointed to a commission of inquiry into its operation under resident physician Henry Hunt Stabb*. Three years later he was made a visiting physician to the hospital. Although he was soon replaced after the Conservatives became the governing party in April 1894, within weeks of the Liberals’ return to power in December he was named attendant, or non-resident, physician, a position he had actively pursued. In a letter dated 21 Dec. 1893 to Newfoundland’s colonial secretary, Robert Bond, he had sought the appointment at a minimum fixed yearly stipend of $3,000 (the annual salary paid to such professionals as magistrates, teachers, and clergy at the time averaged much less than $1,000). Tait now secured the position but not the salary. With his elevation to the position of medical superintendent on 25 March 1895, however, his emolument was set at $2,000 plus contributions towards his household expenses, which made him one of the highest paid officials on the government’s payroll. The construction of an imposing superintendent’s residence, on land adjacent to the asylum that had been purchased from Tait during 1896–97, increased his dependence on the public purse and made his position even more lucrative.

Tait’s appointment was denounced by Governor Sir John Terence Nicholls O’Brien*, who, in a letter to the British colonial secretary, cited Tait’s recent expulsion from the Medical Society of St John’s on grounds of unprofessional conduct as sufficient reason to rescind it. (This expulsion, believed to have been in response to Tait’s conviction under the Corrupt Practices Act, apparently did not affect his subsequent practice of medicine.) O’Brien’s objection had no influence on the governing party. Tait carried out his duties as superintendent until September 1897, when he resigned to become a candidate in that fall’s election. The Conservative’s victory prevented the defeated Tait from regaining his position at the asylum, which went to Dr Lawrence Edward Keegan, but it did not end his association with the institution. The Liberals were returned to office in 1900 and shortly thereafter the new premier, Bond, reappointed Tait as medical superintendent.

His approach to treatment was guided by his conviction that mental illness was mainly the result of inherited factors, a belief that had gained much credibility in late-19th-century psychiatric pathology. He held little hope for the recovery of most patients; in 1895 he had argued that their incarceration in the asylum was rapidly turning it into “a Home for Incurables rather than a Hospital for the care and cure of the Insane.” He advocated that alternative accommodation be found for them and was not averse to transferring them to the local poorhouse. Unlike Keegan, who had implemented an aggressive program of work, Tait believed that this type of occupational therapy was ineffective and fiscally unsound and he cancelled many of Keegan’s initiatives when he replaced him in 1900. However, he gradually changed his opinion, acknowledging that some patients did benefit, but he limited work programs to those classified as able-bodied – seldom more than a third of the residents. Tait exercised frugality in the administration of sedatives and the use of physical restraints was common during his superintendence.

Tait’s personal and professional conduct was called into question in May 1902 when Miss M. E. Scott, the asylum’s matron, made several accusations against him, the most serious of which was causing the death of a patient through lethal injection. He was cleared of any wrongdoing, but when a second inquiry, in 1907 in response to allegations that he was involved in a sexual relationship with one of the female staff, recommended his removal, he submitted his resignation.

Tait had maintained his private practice during his incumbency at the Hospital for the Insane and he now returned to it, though in his later years he would confine himself to consultative work. He had kept abreast of advancements in medicine, studying in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and London, and he received various accreditations, certificates, and licences. In 1896 he was named a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (Edinburgh), at the time the only person in Newfoundland with this designation. A writer of some note, he contributed medical articles, essays, and patriotic poems to such local periodicals as the Newfoundland Quarterly and the Cadet; his pamphlet entitled Tuberculosis was published in St John’s in 1902. He was elected to the city’s municipal council in 1916 and served until 1920. A Methodist and then a member of the United Church of Canada, he died in 1928.

In addition to her role as a homemaker and mother, Tait’s wife, who died in 1925, was devoted to community and church work, especially in support of the missionary efforts of Gower Street Methodist Church. Their daughter, Mary Elsinore (Elsie), was a talented musician and holds the distinction of being the first recipient of a degree in music from Mount Allison. She was also a graduate of the Toronto Conservatory of Music and was organist at Gower Street Church for many years. Two sons, Archibald Campbell and Harold Sinclair, followed their father into medicine, while the third, Robert Holland*, opted for a career in law and positions with Newfoundland’s information bureaus in the United States. All three served with distinction in World War I, Archibald and Harold with the Royal Army Medical Corps and Robert with the Newfoundland Regiment.

J. Sinclair Tait, in the estimation of historian Patricia O’Brien, “seems to have been a man of small imagination and even smaller humanitarian impulse,” particularly in his years as medical superintendent at the Hospital for the Insane. His opposition to innovative therapies and his reliance on antiquated methods reduced his effectiveness as the hospital’s administrator and primary caregiver. His removal as superintendent was a direct result of his own misconduct. Yet, his continuing quest for medical knowledge and his large and successful private practice indicate that he was dedicated to his profession and enjoyed the confidence of his patients. He made the most of his term in the assembly by persuading the government to bring structure to the practice of medicine in Newfoundland. As secretary and registrar of the Medical Board for its first 15 years, he was able to ensure that it became the regulating body he had intended.

Bertram Riggs

In addition to his pamphlet, Tuberculosis, James Sinclair Tait wrote “Allan Lee,” a ballad that was published in Songs of Newfoundland (St John’s, 1917), 7. Three articles by him appear in the Newfoundland Quarterly (St John’s) – “Heredity and environment,” 1 (1901–2), no.4: 21–24; “The ideal in education,” 12 (1912–13), no.1: 6–10; and “The jubilee of years,” 11 (1911–12), no.3: 21 – as well as a poem “Britain’s call,” 14 (1914–15), no.2: 30. Two other poems were printed in the Cadet (St John’s): “The conflict,” December 1917: 23 and “King and empire,” December 1918: 1.

Private arch., Bertram Riggs (St John’s), E-mail corr. from Cheryl Ennals, Mount Allison Univ. archivist, with information from convocation and commencement programs. Daily News (St John’s), 20 Nov. 1894, 23 Feb. 1925, 6 July 1928. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 6 July 1928. Argosy (Sackville, N.B.), February 1875, September 1876, October 1877, January 1879, March 1888, February 1893, March 1897. Births, deaths and marriages in Newfoundland newspapers, comp. Gert Crosbie (13v., St John’s, 1997–99; also available on CD-ROM), 8 (1881–82); 13 (1890). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). Encyclopedia of Nfld (Smallwood et al.), 1: 679–749. Nfld, House of Assembly, Journal, 1893–96. Newfoundland Medical Board, Newfoundland medical register (n.p.), 1912, 1914. Newfoundland men . . . , ed. H. Y. Mott (Concord, N.H., 1894). Notable events in the history of Newfoundland: six thousand dates of historical and social happenings, comp. M. A. Devine and M. J. O’Mara (St John’s, 1900). Patricia O’Brien, Out of mind, out of sight: a history of the Waterford Hospital (St John’s, 1989). Vital statistics from N.B. newspapers (Johnson), 60 (1882–84). Who’s who and why, 1914. Who’s who in and from Newfoundland . . . (St John’s), 1927. Yearbook and almanac of Newfoundland (St John’s), 1887–1929.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Bertram Riggs, “TAIT, JAMES SINCLAIR,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 24, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/tait_james_sinclair_15E.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/tait_james_sinclair_15E.html
Author of Article:   Bertram Riggs
Title of Article:   TAIT, JAMES SINCLAIR
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2005
Year of revision:   2005
Access Date:   September 24, 2023