Colonel Darby Bergin, 1826-1896

On Tuesday, November 8, 2016, the Ontario Heritage Trust and the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Regimental Foundation unveiled a provincial plaque commemorating Colonel Darby Bergin at the Cornwall Armoury. The plaque is permanently located at the Precious Blood Parish Cemetery in Cornwall.

The provincial plaque reads as follows:


    Bergin was born in York (Toronto) and received his medical degree from McGill College in Montreal. He practised medicine in Cornwall, where he also assisted at a local typhus hospital. He later worked with the Mohawks of Akwesasne during a devastating smallpox outbreak. Bergin was elected Member of Parliament in 1872. He was a passionate and early advocate for rural affairs, public health and social justice. His innovative efforts and political appeals to improve workplace conditions and reduce the hours of work for women and children influenced future successful labour reform in Canada. A lifelong supporter of the militia, he was the first commanding officer of the 59th Stormont and Glengarry Battalion. In 1885, he became Canada’s first Surgeon General, laying the groundwork for the creation of a permanent medical corps. A promoter of local industry, he played an important role in the expansion of the Cornwall Canal and founded the Ontario Pacific Railway. After his death, Bergin was honoured with one of the largest public funerals ever held in Eastern Ontario.

Historical background

Darby Bergin was born on September 7, 1826 in York (now Toronto), Upper Canada. He was the eldest son of William Bergin, a merchant who emigrated from King’s (Offaly) County, Ireland to Canada in 1820.1 By the 1830s, Bergin Sr. enjoyed a prosperous business and sent Darby to Upper Canada College (UCC). Nineteenth-century biographies of Bergin observe that he was a brilliant student, with one noting that he won the Latin Grammar prize — open to all students at UCC — before the age of 12.2 The academically minded Darby soon moved to Montreal to pursue a doctorate in medicine at McGill College.

In 1829, the first medical school in British North America3 was founded at McGill College by four Edinburgh-trained physicians whose vision embodied the humanistic and interdisciplinary tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment.4 Medical training at McGill blended didactic and practical studies in both natural and moral philosophy — focused on one-on-one clinical practice — and underscored teacher-student interaction.5

This type of engaged, civic-minded medical training resonated with Bergin and would inspire him throughout his life. It appears that he was extremely proficient in his university studies, passing the Lower Canada Medical Board examination in the spring of 1846 before his official graduation from McGill.6 In 1847, he received his MD (Doctor of Medicine degree)7 and moved across the provincial border to Cornwall in Canada West. Bergin had a natural connection with the region as his mother Mary was the daughter of John Flanagan, a well-known merchant from Charlottenburg in Glengarry County.8 By 1848, the legacy of the Great Famine led to waves of increased emigration from Ireland to the Canadas and Bergin was pressed into service at the immigrant typhus hospital in Cornwall with Dr. Roderick Macdonald. Impressed with his manner and his efficient ministering of public health, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs would later ask Bergin to tend to the Mohawks of the St. Regis after a devastating outbreak of smallpox.9

Bergin excelled in what today would be known as the field of public health. He also possessed a keen interest in the early medical politics of the province and the formation of young physicians. He was the first president of the Eastern District Medical Association and later president of the St. Lawrence and Eastern District Medical Association. Bergin was vice-president and president of the administrative council for the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons as well as being a long-standing examiner of midwifery and anatomy for the College.

In 1861, in response to the heightened security tensions with America due to the Trent Affair, Bergin raised a militia company of which he was captain and was later promoted to major in 1866. Three years later, he was made Lieutenant-Colonel of the 59th Stormont and Glengarry Battalion Volunteer Militia.10 In 1886, during his term as Surgeon General, Bergin was promoted again, receiving the controversial11 rank of full colonel.12

Bergin’s sense of civic duty, witnessed through his medical and military service, extended to a profound interest to represent the constituents of Cornwall in the new federal parliament. He was first elected in 1872 as a Liberal candidate but was narrowly defeated two years later by A.F. Macdonald. The Macdonald-Bergin rivalry caused a long-standing split in the Liberal party in the Cornwall region. Bergin returned to parliament in 1878 and was unseated again, this time by D.B. McLennan. On January 27, 1880, he returned to parliament a third time and remained a member, representing the Conservative party until his death in 1896.13 Bergin had an affable manner and could relate to people regardless of their personal politics. Indeed, his own political ideology was one that transcended strict party lines. As one contemporary source commented, “… in politics he is a conservative, a genuine liberal one.”14

During his time in parliament, he became an early advocate for the improvement of working conditions, particularly for women and children. From 1879 to 1886, Bergin proposed a series of private members’ bills to prohibit children under 12 from working in factories and limited the working day to 10 hours for both women and children. Other proposals saw government inspectors enforce minimum standards of cleanliness and safety in factories.15 Bergin, drawing on his strong education in the humanities, offered eloquent and passionate arguments detailing the history of the English industrial revolution. “I know, Sir,” he spoke in parliament, “that many of the evils that attended the English system will creep into ours if not provided against by legislation. The future of the children is in our hands and I feel that their appeal will not be in vain.”16 Unfortunately, each one of Bergin’s proposals failed, frustrating the physician greatly. Historians, however, have observed that his labours were not entirely unsuccessful as they raised the profile of what was seen at the time as a shameful issue. In 1886, the Ontario legislature passed the Factories’ Act and the federal government, not to be upstaged by its provincial counterpart, launched the Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital in 1887. Both legislation and royal commission made the first strides in recognizing and remedying the ills that plagued Canadian industry at the time.17

Bergin was also passionate about the agricultural and industrial development of Eastern Ontario. He and his brother John ran the Stormont Stock Farm that bred trotting horses and cattle.18 He saw the importance of linking Eastern Ontario to the rest of the province. In 1842, the United Province of Canada developed the Cornwall Canal to improve navigation along the St. Lawrence River. Within a decade, the canal became part of a crucial transportation network along with the Iroquois, Galop and Faran Point canals.19 By the 1870s, the system was starting to show its age and Bergin became an advocate for its repair and expansion to benefit trade between Cornwall east to Montreal and west to Toronto along the St. Lawrence River. Bergin was also a founding director of the Ontario Pacific Railway Company, incorporated in 1882. In spite of its ambitious name, the railway was initially intended to connect Cornwall with Ottawa. At the time of Bergin’s death, the line was incomplete and the company nearly insolvent. In 1897, it was renamed the Ottawa and New York Railway Company and the line to Ottawa was finished two years later. In 1916, the line was leased by the New York Central and later purchased outright by the company in 1956, who abandoned it just two years later in 1958.20

In spite of his many contributions to the advancement of Cornwall and of Eastern Ontario, Bergin is perhaps best known for his brief ̶ though influential ̶ term as Canada’s first surgeon general. Longstanding issues between the Métis and the Government of Canada came to a head in the spring of 1885 when Louis Riel declared a Provisional Government of Saskatchewan. In response to the western unrest, the government of Sir John A. Macdonald authorized the mobilization of 3,000 militia troops. In April 1885, Bergin, well-known in Ottawa for his medical connections and organizational skills, was called on to develop, staff and supply a medical corps.21

Creating a medical corps from scratch was no small feat as Bergin observed: “I was not blind to the difficulties of the situation. There was no fixed Department Medical Staff, no Field Hospital, or Ambulance Service, no organized Corps of Nurses, no fixed method of recognizing such societies as the St. John’s Hospital Aid Society, the Red Cross and other similar charitable associations.”22 Bergin moved quickly to create an administrative hierarchy and staffed the department with surgeons, dressers and nurses. He assessed the available supplies and equipment and had items specially made if they did not exist. He also built bridges with, and solicited help from, those key civilian associations and charitable societies. His work was impressive, though short-lived. By 1886, the North-West Rebellion was over and the medical service that he had organized disbanded. Newly recruited surgeons, dressers and nurses went back to their civilian life and Bergin, though gazetted as a colonel in rank and surgeon general in title, had no official duties and received no pay.23

In 1893, Bergin developed a chronic illness that, ironically, could not be diagnosed by his medical colleagues. In spite of his ailment, he continued as a member of Parliament until his death in 1896. News of his passing was announced around Canada and across the British Empire. His funeral, an obituary in the British Medical Journal observed, was held at the Old Roman Catholic Burying Ground at Flanagan’s Point and was “the largest known in Eastern Canada since the burial of John Stanfield Macdonald.”24

Dr. Darby Bergin was an accomplished man of diverse interests and accomplishments. He was a physician, federal politician, community booster, civil servant, labour advocate and an industrialist – an odd combination of disparate and, at times, seemingly contradictory interests. Nonetheless, his eclectic and tireless nature offer a lasting testament of a man who devoted his entire life to the service of the people of Eastern Ontario.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Dr. Michael Eamon in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2016

1 “Bergin, Lieut. Col. Darby, MD (Cornwall and Stormont),” in J.A. Gemmill, ed. The Canadian Parliamentary Companion, 1883, (Ottawa: J. Durie and Son, 1883), 87.

2 “Surgeon General Bergin – Factory Labor Reform,” Man, A Canadian Home Magazine 1,3 (January 1886): 112.

3 At this time British North America comprised Upper and Lower Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Rupert’s Land and Northwest Territories as well as the British West Indies.

4 For more on the eclectic and radical methods of instruction in Enlightenment Scotland see Michael Eamon, “Finding Enlightenment in the National Archives: The Commonplace Book of James Sholto Douglas,” Archivaria 51 (Spring 2001): 163-169.

5 For more see Joseph Hanaway and Richard Cruess, McGill Medicine, Volume 1: The First Half Century 1829-1885, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996), 17-20.

6 “Dr. Bergin,” Dominion Medical Monthly and Ontario Medical Journal 7,6 (Dec. 1896): 635.

7 Annual Announcement of the Faculty of Medicine of McGill College, for the Session 1857-58, (Montreal: John Lovell, 1857), 23.

8 “Dr. Bergin,” Dominion Medical Monthly and Ontario Medical Journal 7, 6 (Dec. 1896): 635.

9 Ibid.

10 “Bergin, Lieut.-Col. Darby, MD (Cornwall and Stormont), in J.A. Gemmill, ed. Canadian Parliamentary Companion, 1891, (Ottawa: J. Durie and Son, 1891), 106-107.

11 Ramrod, “Correspondence: The Rank of Surgeon General,” Canadian Military Gazette, 12 January 1888, 221.

12 “Militia General Orders, 21st May,” Canadian Military Gazette, 5 August 1886, 438.

13 “Bergin, Lieut.-Col. Darby, MD (Cornwall and Stormont), in J.A. Gemmill, ed. Canadian Parliamentary Companion, 1891, (Ottawa: J. Durie and Son, 1891), 107.

14 “Surgeon General Bergin – Factory Labor Reform,” Man, A Canadian Home Magazine 1,3 (January 1886): 114.

15 Charles G. Roland, “Bergin, Darby,” in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume 12, University of Toronto/Universite of Laval, 2003, accessed on 20 May 2016.

16 “Surgeon General Bergin – Factory Labor Reform,” Man, A Canadian Home Magazine 1,3 (January 1886): 113.

17 Lorna F. Hurl, “Restricting Child Factory Labour in Late Nineteenth Century Ontario,” Labour/Le Travail 21 (Spring 1988): 93-96.

18 Charles G. Roland, “Bergin, Darby,” in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume 12, University of Toronto/Universite of Laval, 2003, accessed on 20 May 2016.

19 Christopher Andreae, ed. Lines of Country: An Atlas of Railway and Waterway History in Canada, (Erin: Boston Mills Press, 1997), 203.

20 Ibid., 125, 201.

21 The Medical and Surgical History of the Canadian North-West Rebellion of 1885, As Told By Members of the Hospital Staff Corps, (Montreal: John Lovell and Son, 1886), 1.

22 Ibid.

23 “In Parliament,” Canadian Military Gazette 30 June 1887, 810.

24 “Obituary,” 13 December 1896, British Medical Journal (London): 1749.