Meet Anderson Abbott: The Man Who Paved the Way in Modern Medicine

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February is Black History Month and we wanted to feature some of the amazing POC who’ve made a difference in Canadian history. Over our next four blogs, you’ll meet trailblazers in health, business, tech and community services – each representing one of our streams. 

We’re highlighting stories of racism and resilience, discrimination and progress. These individuals showcase some of the work that’s already been done to challenge systems of prejudice and inequality while highlighting that our work is far from over. We hope you question your knowledge and learn something new. 

Now we’d like to introduce you to Anderson Abbott, Canada’s first Black doctor. 

 

This incredible image of Anderson Ruffin Abbott was created by Glo, a Black-Canadian graphic designer, stylist and aspiring creative director. Her work has been featured on various news outlets and she’s worked with major brands including Champion and Urban Outfitters. We’re honoured and excited to feature Glo’s work, especially since her illustration highlights a significant figure in Black History @_heyimglo
heyimglo.com

 

Abbott’s Story

Modest beginnings

Anderson Ruffin Abbott was born on April 7, 1837 in Toronto, Ontario. His parents, Wilson Abbott and Ellen Toyer, were both free from enslavement and moved to Toronto from Alabama. In the South, they’d owned a general store until the city passed a law requiring all free Black persons to have bonds signed by white men as proof of their good behaviour. Wilson did not agree with this request and decided to leave. The couple settled in Ontario in 1835 before Abbott was born. 

Wilson started purchasing property in the Toronto area and with almost 50 properties, he was able to make a decent living for his family. When Abbott was old enough, he attended private school, starting at the racially integrated Buxton Mission School near Chatham, Ontario. This school was part of the Elgin Settlement and became a safe haven for refugees hiding from enslavement.

During this time, Abbott discovered his interest in health and medicine and decided he wanted to pursue a career in the medical field. 

 

The path to medicine

Abbott studied hard during his post-secondary, starting at Oberlin College in Ohio. From there he studied chemistry at University College in Toronto and by 1860, Abbott had graduated from the Toronto School of Medicine at the young age of 23. 

He went on to study with Dr. Alexander Thomas Augusta, the first Black-American doctor in North America and head of Toronto City Hospital. In 1861, Abbott received his medical license and became Canada’s first Black doctor

 

Making a difference

Once he got his license, Abbott wanted to serve the people during the American Civil War. In 1863, he applied for a position as assistant surgeon in the Union Army but was unfortunately refused. Instead, he served as a civilian surgeon in the U.S. Coloured Troops, a segregated regiment. He served in many American hospitals between 1863 and 1865, including Freedmen’s Hospital which was the first to treat former slaves. It became the main hospital for the African American community in Washington, D.C. 

In 1865, Abbott was also one of the doctors who treated President Abraham Lincoln after he was shot by John Wilkes Booth. After his passing, Mary Todd Lincoln, the President’s widow, awarded Abbott one of the President’s inauguration shawls as a thank-you for his efforts. 

In 1871, Abbott returned to Toronto and opened his own medical practice. He married a woman named Mary Ann Casey and moved to Chatham, Ontario. They had five children together: three daughters and two sons.

 

Changing roles 

In 1874, Abbott was appointed coroner for Kent County, Ontario as the first African American in the role. Over the next four years, he worked his way up to become president of the Chatham Medical Society and Chatham Literary and Debating Society. He also became president of the Wilberforce Educational Institute and advocated for integrated schools, working to reduce racial segregation in Canada’s education system. The Wilberforce Educational Institute helped Black students prepare for university and Abbott fought for equal rights for all students, regardless of their race. 

After moving a bit around Ontario, Abbott returned to Chicago in 1894 and became surgeon-in-chief at Provident Hospital. This was the first Black-owned and operated hospital in the United States. He later returned to his practice in Toronto.

Alongside his medical achievements, Abbott wrote numerous articles on the Civil War, Black history, biology and poetry. His work was published in various magazines and newspapers including Colored American Magazine of Boston, the Anglo-American Magazine of London and New York Age. 

Abbott died in 1913 at the age of 76. 

 

Abbott’s legacy

Abbott was one of the first Black trailblazers in the medical field. 

  • He became the first practicing Black doctor in Canada. 
  • He opened his own medical practice. 
  • He even advocated for integrated schools so Black students could have the same opportunities as everyone else. 

Abbott’s passion and drive are the reasons he was so successful in his field. He opened the door so Black students could have a fair chance at pursuing a future in healthcare. 

 

Feel inspired to make a change in the healthcare field? Check out our course catalogue and start your journey towards a meaningful career.

In This Article

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