WIDMER, CHRISTOPHER, physician, surgeon, army officer, medical educator and administrator, justice of the peace, office holder, and politician; b. 15 May 1780 in or near High Wycombe, England; m. first 27 Nov. 1802 Emily Sarah Bignell; they had no known children; m. secondly c. 1834 Hannah —, and they had two sons, one of whom died in infancy, and two daughters; d. 3 May 1858 in Toronto.
Christopher Widmer’s roots probably lay in the lesser gentry, his surname having been borne by a family of landowners near High Wycombe which can be traced back to the late 15th century. He is said to have moved as a child to Oxfordshire, although in the 1790s a surgeon and a grocer, both with the same name as he, lived in High Wycombe. Widmer seems to have trained as a surgeon by the normal method of several years’ apprenticeship to a general practitioner followed by a short course at a teaching hospital: in his case the conjoint school of Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals, London, which he entered in October 1802. He became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of London by examination the following March. In June 1804 he joined the British army as a surgeon’s mate on the hospital staff. In August 1805 he became an assistant surgeon in the 14th Dragoons, with which he served in the Iberian Peninsula from 1808 to 1814. He had been promoted surgeon in October 1811 and staff surgeon in November 1812. Two years later he came to Canada, where at different times he was stationed near Montreal and at York (Toronto) and Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake).
Retiring on half-pay in February 1817, Widmer moved at once from Niagara to York. Here he developed a large and remunerative general practice and assumed a leading part in the advancement of medical services and the medical profession. In 1819 he became an original member of the Medical Board of Upper Canada, which examined and certified candidates for provincial medical licences. From 1822 he was its senior member and president, positions he retained on its successors: the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Upper Canada (from 1839 to 1841), and the reconstituted Medical Board (from 1841 until his death). In 1829 he set up the general hospital at York, acting as its senior medical officer (with an important teaching role) until 1853, when he became its first consulting physician and surgeon. He also served as a trustee of the hospital (1833–57) and as chairman of its board (1844–47, 1848–55). During the rebellion crisis of 1837–38 he was made general superintendent of the army medical department in Upper Canada, with the rank of assistant inspector of hospitals. In 1839 he was appointed a commissioner to supervise the erection of a provincial lunatic asylum and two years later was largely responsible for establishing a temporary asylum at Toronto [see William Rees*; Walter Telfer]. Upon the completion of the permanent asylum in 1850 he became chairman of its board of directors, serving until 1853.
No doubt helped by his marital connection with a wealthy legal and banking family, the Bignells of Oxfordshire, Widmer built up a large fortune, acquired property, and lent large sums for profit or friendship. His estate at death included much realty and more than £50,000 in mortgages, bonds, and debentures. Such wealth, along with his and his wife’s social antecedents, made him welcome in the highest circles of provincial society and his abilities brought him several prestigious non-medical offices. He became a justice of the peace in June 1822 and for more than 20 years was one of the most assiduous members of the Home District bench. No doubt his command of the business of local government had much to do with his being offered the wardenship of the district (which he declined) in 1841. He was a director of the Bank of Upper Canada (1822–25, 1827–57) and served as its vice-president from 1843 to 1849. In 1829 he was appointed to both King’s College Council and the provincial Board for the General Superintendence of Education, just when those bodies were becoming preoccupied with the building and organization of Upper Canada College, a preparatory school in which Lieutenant Governor Sir John Colborne* (a fellow veteran of the Peninsular War) took a special interest. These appointments may have reflected Colborne’s desire to extend official responsibilities to appointees who were outside the small circle of people that had hitherto monopolized office, but the choice of Widmer must have stemmed as well from his wish to involve an able businessman in his favourite project. In 1834 Widmer was made a district school trustee.
Widmer was never primarily a politician, but it was impossible for a man so active in the public affairs of such a highly politicized community to remain wholly disengaged. His professional, public, and private lives, including his membership in a masonic lodge, all brought him into frequent contact with members of the Upper Canadian establishment, and his political début was made as an aldermanic candidate on the conservative ticket for Toronto’s St David’s Ward in 1834, when he lost to William Lyon Mackenzie* and James Lesslie*. Widmer’s political preferences were consistently conservative up to and including the general election of 1836, when he voted in Toronto for William Henry Draper*, who soundly defeated the moderate reformer James Edward Small*. In January 1837, however, Widmer stood for alderman on a ticket of prestigious reformers that included Small, William Warren Baldwin*, George Ridout*, and Jesse Ketchum* and that was probably designed to encourage Toronto’s reform sympathizers to declare themselves. Again he lost.
Widmer’s open conversion to reform at this time of maximum political polarization leading up to the rebellion of 1837 may well have been unique among public figures in Upper Canada, and its cause can only be guessed at. His conservative vote in 1836 suggests that his conversion may not have been due to the constitutional principle at stake in the general election so much as to Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Bond Head*’s dismissal of Small, Baldwin, and Ridout from public office later in the year for engaging in reform politics. Friendships may also have contributed to Widmer’s conversion: he was close to both Baldwin, a long-time colleague on the Medical Board, and his son Robert, and was also a friend of John Rolph*, another member of the board and now the leading parliamentary critic of the provincial government. Widmer and Rolph stood godfather to each other’s son and stayed on cordial terms even after the latter’s treason and flight in 1837.
From 1838 Widmer was a consistent Baldwinite, and in 1840 Lieutenant Governor Sir George Arthur identified him, along with the Baldwins, Small, and Francis Hincks*, as one of the “respectables” of the reform “Party.” In that year Widmer chaired Robert Baldwin’s campaign committee during the latter’s protracted, but ultimately abortive attempt to become a member of the House of Assembly for Toronto at the expected general election. Widmer also served on the campaign committees of John Henry Dunn and Isaac Buchanan*, who stood and triumphed as anti-tory candidates when the election took place, in March 1841. In August 1843, during the ministry of Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine*, Widmer was appointed to the Legislative Council, having declined the honour a year earlier on the grounds that he could not attend sessions at Kingston. He sat regularly only when the legislature met at Toronto, but was willing to join council at Montreal or Quebec when his friends thought it necessary. The colour of his politics in these years is further indicated by his membership on the general committee of the Reform Association of Canada in 1844 and by his recommendation to Robert Baldwin in 1846 that the “Reform Party” should put all its funds for propaganda behind a single, “Whig-Radical” newspaper, which would advocate “the great principle of a stern opposition to Government influence thro’ an Episcopal Establishment.” Such a journal would be “supported by a liberal annual subscription for those who could afford it, and a comparative low charge for the masses.” His opposition in 1856 to the creation of an elective legislative council, long a reform demand, suggests the limits of his liberalism.
As head of the medical profession in Upper Canada, Widmer was a central figure in the debates generated by three topics of particular importance to it: the establishment of a university medical school, professional self-regulation, and the administrative reforms of 1852–53 . His views on these matters are not always easy to establish: he was at the centre of affairs but his voice is often buried in the collective utterances of the various bodies to which he belonged.
In 1830 Sir John Colborne, aware of public discontent over the religious exclusiveness of King’s College, decided to open only its medical faculty. Upper Canadians desiring medical training would then be less tempted to seek it in the United States, where they might suffer political contamination. The college council objected that the demand for medical education in Upper Canada was limited and that York was too small to afford students the requisite practical experience. There is no evidence that Widmer dissented from this view but from 1834, after two cholera epidemics had underlined the province’s shortage of medical expertise, he and others on the Medical Board pressed for the immediate establishment of a medical faculty. At different times Widmer, Rolph, and the board as a whole were consulted on the matter by Colborne, but to no practical effect.
In May 1837 Widmer resigned from the college council along with its other medical member, Grant Powell*, probably to protest against John Strachan*’s plan for commencing instruction at the college, recently adopted by the council, which established the medical faculty on an inferior footing, with only three part-time instructors. Between August and November 1837 the Medical Board engaged in an increasingly acrimonious dispute on the subject with Sir Francis Bond Head, the college’s chancellor ex officio, but the outbreak of rebellion in December prevented Strachan’s plan from being implemented. In 1839 the College of Physicians and Surgeons, led by Widmer, tried to induce the council to become its partner in setting up a large medical faculty, but nothing was achieved until plans were made to set up the college as a whole. In May 1842 Widmer was reappointed to the council by Governor Sir Charles Bagot* to help institute medical instruction. In an era of struggle between allopathic (orthodox) practitioners and the various rival groups which they condemned as quacks, Widmer’s advice reflected a wish to enhance the allopaths’ social standing by making the school and its courses as prestigious as possible. He would have preferred to import the entire faculty from Britain but, acknowledging that “local interests must be yielded to,” recommended Toronto doctors instead, including John King, William Charles Gwynne*, and William Rawlins Beaumont*. Widmer left the council late in 1842, once the medical appointments had been made, whereupon it modified his scheme in order to accommodate the objections of Strachan, who favoured a larger but less well paid faculty. Responsibility for the medical school was transferred in 1850 to the University of Toronto, formed that year from King’s College.
The incorporation of the medical profession in Upper Canada was conceived partly as another means to eradicate unorthodox practice. Although proponents of the idea, who tended to be politically conservative, argued that professional self-government was the best way to suppress quackery, their politically radical opponents, even among the allopaths, denounced them as a clique intent on monopolizing medical services. Widmer seems to have vacillated on the issue. When incorporation was first proposed, in 1832, he and the Medical Board opposed it, claiming that existing licensing procedures, coupled with provincial statutes against unlicensed practice, provided sufficient regulation. Six years later, after the board had lost those members implicated in the rebellion (Rolph, Charles Duncombe*, and Thomas David Morrison), the proposal was revived on the grounds that the licensing system no longer provided adequate regulation. Despite radical opposition in the House of Assembly to the board’s initiative, the College of Physicians and Surgeons was chartered in 1839 but the statute was disallowed by the imperial government in 1840 after the Royal College of Surgeons of London complained that the charter infringed its privileges. Widmer opposed the next, tory-led attempt to achieve self-regulation in 1846 but in May 1852 took the lead in the incorporation movement by calling a meeting of doctors at Toronto. This attempt was no more successful than earlier ones in overcoming radical opposition and uniting the profession.
Widmer’s initiative in 1852 was interpreted by Dr Joseph Workman* as “acting cat’s paw for the tories,” who wished to defeat the effects of a recent reform of the Medical Board by having it superseded as the regulating medical authority in Upper Canada. This reform was one of several exacted from the ministry of Francis Hincks and Augustin-Norbert Morin* in 1852–53 by John Rolph, whose political support was essential to the ministry’s survival. Rolph wanted above all to counteract the competitive edge of the University of Toronto’s medical faculty over his own Toronto School of Medicine in attracting students. The faculty, which received financial support from the university endowment, dominated both the Medical Board and the staff of the Toronto General Hospital, whereas the Toronto School of Medicine, which depended entirely on students’ fees, was unrepresented in either institution. Since the board certified candidates for provincial licences, while the hospital was a vital source of practical training, the university possessed a threefold advantage over Rolph’s school. Soon after Rolph had joined the cabinet in December 1851 the board was packed with his supporters, who changed its by-laws to make its proceedings public and provide that no member should examine any of his own students for a certificate. In 1853 the hospital’s charter was revised so that each medical school in Toronto, including the medical faculty of Trinity College, might be equally represented on its staff. At the same time Rolph was able to exploit widespread public hostility to the University of Toronto by securing the abolition that year of its medical faculty as part of the government’s comprehensive reform of the institution.
Widmer’s attitude towards these reforms varied from cordial approval to outright hostility. The hospital bill was as much his as Rolph’s: it was Widmer who introduced it into the Legislative Council. He also admitted the fairness of the Medical Board reforms, while resenting the packing of his panel with radicals and the forceful conduct of their leader, Joseph Workman. The university reforms he opposed absolutely. After Robert Baldwin had publicly refused to be named chancellor in protest against them, Widmer accepted the office in January 1853 and strongly censured the government’s proposed legislation at his installation. His chancellorship ended when the reform bill was enacted in April and the post became a government appointment. However, he served until his death in the university senate, to which he had belonged since 1850.
Widmer’s differences with Rolph on these matters do not seem to have damaged their friendship. Nor did another controversial affair. Rolph wished to replace the unpopular medical superintendent of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, John Scott*, with his own nominee, Joseph Workman. In February 1853 Widmer and five other members of the asylum’s board of directors offered to resign in protest against the conduct of Rolph’s supporters on the board, William McMaster* and Terence Joseph O’Neill*. However, after the introduction of a bill to reform the management of the asylum had prompted Scott to resign, Widmer did not quit his post as chairman, though he was not reappointed to the board under the new act in September. Moreover, although he deprecated Rolph’s attempt to slip Workman into Scott’s post on the sly, he proved ready to help secure Workman’s appointment even after his own formal connection with the asylum had ceased. He advised Rolph to advertise the position widely and then recommended Workman over better-qualified rivals when the government referred the resulting applications to him for appraisal. He also told Rolph in March 1854 how to diminish the outcry the appointment would evoke.
Although the friendship survived these trials, it did not prevent Widmer from voting in 1855 as a hospital trustee to dismiss the representatives of Rolph’s medical school on the staff of the general hospital, William Thomas Aikins* and Henry Hover Wright, after they had given damaging evidence at a public investigation into the hospital’s management. Though the accusations of mismanagement at the hospital were by no means all refuted, the trustees followed this dismissal with other actions which benefited the medical faculty of Trinity College at the expense of Rolph’s school and probably strained his relationship with Widmer. Rolph tried to prevent Widmer’s reappointment to the board of trustees in 1855, and the two quarrelled publicly on the Medical Board in October 1857 over its examination of a candidate.
Widmer was noted in the public mind for his professional talents, profanity of utterance (which the charitable ascribed to his military background), and generosity of spirit. His obituary in the Daily Leader recorded the “curious fact” that for most of his life he refused to take more than six per cent interest on loans. His kindness to the sick poor was noted by contemporaries, although, like most of his class, he lacked sympathy for the “undeserving poor.” In old age, Henry Scadding* recalled, Widmer’s “face in repose was somewhat abstracted and sad, but a quick smile appeared at the recognition of friends.” Indeed, his friendship with Rolph suggests that he may have valued personal fidelity even above patriotism, and there is evidence that amity may have blinded him to the professional failings of such colleagues as William Rawlins Beaumont, John Scott, and Edward Clarke, the medical superintendent of the general hospital. The melancholy at which Scadding hinted may have stemmed partly from the world-view of one who, though formally an Anglican, was widely suspected of being an atheist, at least until his last years. His private life may also have played its part. According to William Canniff*, Widmer dressed smartly and was “an amazing favourite with the ladies”; his first wife, described in 1826 by Samuel Peters Jarvis as “a little, short, straight, tight built creature, with a damned ugly face,” furiously resented his philandering. His second wife, though she made him very happy, was far below him in social rank and may have been something of an embarrassment. Their son Christopher Rolph, who seems to have been conceived several months before the first wife’s death in 1833, disappointed his devoted father by his idleness and dissipation and died a year before Widmer, who suffered a fatal seizure while visiting his son’s grave. Widmer’s elder daughter, Annie, exhibited a waywardness which seems to have stemmed from a sense of shame at her parentage.
The variety of Widmer’s offices over four decades suggests that his contribution to Canadian life was greater than those of many whose careers are better documented. Although his reputation made him an ideal figure-head for the reform cause in the 1840s, there is no reason to suppose that he was a nonentity in any public capacity. Remembered by James Henry Richardson as a “small and wiry” man with “an active springy walk,” he brought to his work a fierce energy, which was typified by his response when summoned in 1841 to attend the dying governor-in-chief, Lord Sydenham [Thomson*]. At the age of 61, Widmer, “an accomplished horseman,” rode from Toronto to Kingston without pause.
His pre-eminence in the medical field, both as a practitioner and an administrator, was beyond doubt to his contemporaries. As a practitioner, he was reputed to be extremely skilful in diagnosis and prescription, and retained into his seventies, despite increasing infirmity, an aptitude in difficult operations which put younger men to shame. He remained in private practice at least until 1854, and his reading, as partially reflected in a catalogue of his medical books auctioned in 1866, shows that he kept up with advances in medicine. He reportedly “gave to the earlier practitioners of the province an enormous impulse towards scientific surgery.” As an administrator, he did his best to prevent the era’s endemic factionalism from harming the best interests of his profession, which he conceived to lie in suppressing quackery and enforcing the highest possible standards of general education and competence among provincial licensees. Any attempt to explain his shifts on the position of professional self-regulation can only be speculative. As the government’s chief adviser on medical matters, he had little to gain from the ending of government regulation, and his support for incorporation in 1839 and 1852 was probably exceptional. The earlier occasion may reflect the hope that a more strongly organized profession would be able to press an obdurate university establishment to set up a suitable medical faculty. The later shift was almost certainly linked to Widmer’s loss of pre-eminence to John Rolph.
Widmer’s confrères showed their esteem for him in various ways. He was elected first president of the two professional organizations formed in Toronto during his lifetime: the Medico-Chirurgical Society of Upper Canada (1833) and the Toronto Medico-Chirurgical Society (1844). Wider recognition came in 1844, when he was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and three years later, when McGill College granted him the honorary degree of md. In 1853 John Rolph wrote quite sincerely that Widmer was “still you know, as he ever has been, and well named primus omnium.” Rolph’s estimate of Widmer may be taken as conclusive.
Christopher Widmer is the author of at least one medical paper, “On purulent ophthalmia” in Laws of the Toronto Medico-Chirurgical Society, together with a catalogue of books in its library; instituted 17th June, 1844 (Toronto, 1845). A copy of Elements of the practice of physic, for the use of those students who attended the lectures read on this subject at Guy’s Hospital ([London], 1798) which belonged to Widmer and contains his notes on the lectures is held by the library of the Academy of Medicine (Toronto) in ms 3.
Academy of Medicine, W. T. Aikins papers; ms 137. AO, MU 1532; RG 1, C-I-3, 37: 17; 123: 1; RG 22, ser.94, 3–7; ser.155, will of Christopher Widmer. MTL, Robert Baldwin papers; J. R. Robertson ms coll., J. H. Richardson, “Reminiscences of Dr. James H. Richardson, 1829–1905” (typescript). PAC, RG 1, L3, 527: W11/32; RG 5, A1: 14495–97, 14577–78, 14867–68, 42422–25, 50327–28, 77580–88; C1, 77, file 2315; 133, file 8136; 373, file 1966; 1841, file 2786; 1855, file 959; 1862, file 1380; C2, 7: 559; 22: 28; 28: 46, 138–39, 269, 338; 30: 52–53, 118; 32: 424; 36: 115; RG 8, I (C ser.), 0: 278; 1203 1/2P: 92; 1707: 109; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 214, 445, 472; 1841–67: 150. St James’ Cemetery and Crematorium (Toronto), Record of burials. Univ. of Toronto Arch., A70-0005, 1850–58; A72-0024/001–2, King’s College council minutes, 1829–43; A73-0015/001, 1829–33. Can., Prov. of, Legislative Council, Journals, 1843–58. Catalogue of medical & miscellaneous books, the library of the late Dr. Widmer, surgical instruments, &c., to be sold . . . October 18, 1866 (Toronto, ). Gentleman’s Magazine, 1802: 1160. Medical Chronicle (Montreal), 6 (1858–59): 45. Report of an investigation by the trustees of the Toronto General Hospital, into certain charges against the management of that institution (Toronto, 1855). Town of York, 1815–34 (Firth). Upper Canada Journal of Medical, Surgical, and Physical Science (Toronto), 1 (1851–52): 68; 2 (1852–53): 59, 107–12. Constitution (Toronto), 24 May 1837. Correspondent and Advocate (Toronto), 4 Jan. 1837. Daily Leader (Toronto), 4 May 1858. Globe, 4 May 1858. Sarnia Observer, and Lambton Advertiser, 13 May 1858. Dictionary of American medical biography: lives of eminent physicians of the United States and Canada, from the earliest times, ed. H. A. Kelly and W. L. Burrage (New York, 1928), 1299–1300. William Johnston, Roll of commissioned officers in the medical service of the British army . . . (Aberdeen, Scot., 1917). National encyclopedia of Canadian biography, ed. J. E. Middleton and W. S. Downs (2v., Toronto, 1935–37), 1: 53–54. V. G. Plarr, Plarr’s lives of the fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, ed. D’Arcy Power et al. (2v., Bristol, Eng., and London, 1930), 2: 520. Canniff, Medical profession in U.C. C. K. Clarke, A history of the Toronto General Hospital . . . (Toronto, 1913). W. G. Cosbie, The Toronto General Hospital, 1819–1965: a chronicle (Toronto, 1975). B. D. Dyster, “Toronto, 1840–1860: making it in a British Protestant town” (1v. in 2, phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1970), chap.2. W. B. Geikie, “Reminiscences of two of Toronto’s principal medical men in the early years of the city’s history,” Canadian Journal of Medicine and Surgery (Toronto), 25 (January–June 1909): 283–94. R. I. Harris, “Christopher Widmer, 1780–1858, and the Toronto General Hospital,” York Pioneer (Toronto), 1965: 2–11. W. A. McFall, “The life and times of Dr. Christopher Widmer,” Annals of Medical Hist. (New York), 3rd ser., 4 (1942): 324–34.
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Cite This Article
Paul Romney, “WIDMER, CHRISTOPHER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/widmer_christopher_8E.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:
|Author of Article:||Paul Romney|
|Title of Article:||WIDMER, CHRISTOPHER|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||April 1, 2023|