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Who was the first Canadian-born doctor of African descent and cared for dying President Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C.?

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Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott (7 April 1837 – 29 December 1913) was born in Toronto to Wilson Ruffin Abbott (1801–1876) and Ellen (Toyer) Abbott (1801–1870), "free people of colour." His father had opened a general provisions store in Mobile, Alabama, but in 1834 after receiving a warning that his store was to be pillaged, he withdrew his money from the bank that same day and sent his wife and children on a steamer for New Orleans. He followed them the next day. The warning had been true – the store was ransacked, and his parents never returned nor were they compensated for his property. After moving to New York and not liking the unfair treatment received there, they settled in Toronto, Upper Canada, in 1835 where Abbott initially ran a tobacco store and later began to buy, build, and rent houses, warehouses and offices. Two years later, he served in the militia – Captain Fuller's Company of Volunteers – that protected Toronto from the rebels in the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion led by William Lyon Mackenzie (1795– 1861). By 1875, Wilson Ruffin Abbott owned more than 75 properties in Toronto, Hamilton, Dundas and Owen Sound.

The family's economic prosperity allowed the Abbotts to move in the Elgin Settlement (now North Buxton), near Chatham (Ontario) to give their children – including their eldest child, Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott – the advantage of a classical education at private and public schools, among them the famous Buxton Mission School. It is worth noting that North Buxton was established in 1849 as a community for and by former African American refugee slaves who reached Canada via the Underground Railroad from the United States. Anderson Abbott was one of the first three Black students accepted at Toronto Academy of Knox College, where he was an honour student. In 1856, he enrolled in Oberlin College's Preparatory Department in Oberlin, Ohio – "an innovative school which was not segregated and was also the first coed college in the United States." Afterwards in 1857, he continued his studies for four years at the Toronto Medical School – a propriety school that preceded the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto – under the tutorship of American physician Dr. Alexander Thomas Augusta (1825–1890) who headed Toronto City Hospital (now Toronto General Hospital). Dr. Augusta later became the United States Army's first African American physician during the American Civil War, and the first black professor of medicine in the United States. Dr. Abbott received a licence to practice from the Medical Board of Upper Canada in 1861 at the age of 23, becoming the first Canadian-born doctor of African descent.

Like his mentor, Dr. Abbott was aware of the injustices faced by enslaved Blacks in the United States and felt compelled to apply his medical services to the American Civil War (12 April 1861 – 9 May 1865) effort. His first attempt in February 1863 to receive a commission as an assistant surgeon was refused but after reapplying in April of that same year – requesting to be assigned as a medical cadet in one of the coloured regiments and reiterating his professional association with Dr. August – his second letter to Edwin M. Stanton (1814–1869), Secretary of War led to a positive outcome. The records of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. indicate that on 2 September 1863, Dr. Abbott took the oath of allegiance to the United States as Acting Assistant Surgeon at the rank of captain. He was posted under contract to a position in Washington, D.C. from June 1863 until August 1865 where he was placed in charge of the Contraband Hospital (Camp Baker) and later, the Freedmen's Hospital (renamed Howard University Hospital) and a hospital in Arlington, across the Potomac River. These makeshift camps and hospitals had been established by the Union Army to provide a safe haven for "former slaves and a center of government sponsored contraband relief efforts in Washington, D.C." It was the Black surgeons' responsibility to provide food, shelter and medical care to these African American civilians and soldiers.

Abbott served with distinction rising to surgeon-in-chief, received numerous commendations and came to be popular in Washington society, including U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865). On the night of Lincoln's assassination, 14 April 1865, Dr. Abbott was among the select group of doctors, friends and family who cared for and stood vigil that evening with the dying president at the Petersen Boarding House. After Lincoln's death, his wife Mary Todd Lincoln (1818–1882) honoured Dr. Abbott by presenting him "with a Shepard Plaid Shawl which Mr. Lincoln wore on his way to the 1st inauguration and which formed part of a disguise which it is alleged he wore on that occasion to escape assassination." The shawl was donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1963 by Dr. Abbott's grandson. Abbott resigned from the U.S. military on 5 April 1866. In all, his support to the Union side of the American Civil War meant that in 1863, he became one of eight Black surgeons to be appointed to the Army Medical Corps and a founder of Freedmen's Hospital and by the end of the war he was one of over 36,000 Canadian (British North American) veterans who served with the Union forces.

After the war, he returned to Canada and passed the primary examination for the degree of medicine at Toronto University in 1867 and in 1869 he became a member of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. Dr. Abbott married Mary Ann Casey on 9 August 1871 in Toronto and from this union there were five children. In 1871, he settled in Chatham, where he established a medical practice and served as president of the Wilberforce Educational Institute from 1873 to 1880 – helping African Canadian students prepare for university studies. He also became Kent County's first Black coroner (1874), associate editor of the Missionary Messenger (1874) – the official publication of the British Methodist Episcopal Church, president of the Chatham Literary and Debating Society (1878) and president of the Chatham Medical Society (1878). In 1881, Abbott removed from Chatham to Dundas and was appointed director for the Dundas Mechanics Institute in 1881, vice-president in 1883, and president in 1884. He was also appointed High School Trustee in 1883 and served as warden of St. James Church and registrar of St. James Guild. He removed from Dundas to Oakville in 1889, and the following year returned to Toronto. In 1894, Dr. Abbott accepted the position of surgeon-in-chief at Provident Hospital in Chicago, the first training hospital for Black nurses in the United States. He became the hospital's medical superintendent in 1896 and resigned the following year. Returning to Toronto, he resumed a medical practice and wrote for publications on various topics such as black history, the Civil War, Darwinism, biology, medicine, poetry, and politics. Anderson Abbott died in Toronto at the age of 76.

Dr. Abbott was honoured and recognized on numerous occasions during his working life as well as after his death. For example – in April 1890, twenty-five years after the American Civil War ended – Abbott was elected a member of the James S. Knowlton Post No. 532 Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), "one of 273 Civil War veterans in Toronto to wear the GAR badge." Two years later he became the surgeon of the post. Considered perhaps his greatest recognition is when on 21 November 1899, he was appointed aide-de-camp "on the Staff of the Commanding Officers Department of New York" – "the highest military honour ever bestowed to that time on a person of African descent in Canada or the United States, and a source of great pride for Abbott and his family." Nearly a century after his death, the Ontario Heritage Trust and the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society honoured his memory on 27 November 2008 by unveiling a commemorative plaque at the B.M.E (Black Methodist Episcopal) Freedom Park, Chatham, Ontario. As said by The Honourable Lincoln M. Alexander (1922–2012), Chairman of the Ontario Heritage Trust, he was a leader "in the struggle for freedom and equality, helping to pave the way for future generations of blacks in this province and across the country." Dr. Abbott's name is also first to be inscribed as one of the "Notable Canadians" on the 'National Memorial in memory of Canadians who served during the American Civil War' that was unveiled on 16 September 2017 at the Lost Villages Museum, Long Sault, Ontario.

Shown on the left side of the composite photograph is Abbott in a U.S. army uniform. It was taken in 1863 by the celebrated American photographer Mathew Brady (1822–1896) at one of his New York studios, named the National Portrait Gallery. It was in this studio in 1862 that Brady held an exhibition of "The Dead of Antietam" – photographs taken at the site of the Battle of Antietam, Maryland (17 September 1862). This is regarded as the first time that bodies of contemporary dead soldiers were seen by the general public. Depicted on the right side of the composite photograph is Dr. Abbot's family monument where he and his wife Mary Ann Casey (15 September 1855 – 28 April 1931) are buried on a hillside in Toronto’s Necropolis Cemetery, overlooking the Don Valley.

On this day, 29 December 2019, we commemorate the 106th anniversary of the death of Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott in Toronto, Ontario, and mark 158 years since he received his medical licence to practice and acclaimed as the first Canadian-born doctor of African descent and a leader of Toronto's Black community imparting the importance of values, education and equality.

André M. Levesque

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