Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott 1837-1913

On Thursday, November 27, 2008, the Ontario Heritage Trust and the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society unveiled a provincial plaque at the W.I.S.H. Centre in Chatham, Ontario, to commemorate Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott, 1837-1913.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:


    Anderson Ruffin Abbott was born in Toronto in 1837. His parents, Wilson and Ellen Toyer Abbott, were free people of colour who came to Canada in 1835 in pursuit of economic advancement and social justice. Abbott was educated at the Elgin Settlement near Chatham, and then studied at the Toronto School of Medicine. He received his medical licence in 1861, becoming the first Canadian-born doctor of African descent. Upon completing his studies, Dr. Abbott became one of eight Black surgeons to serve in the Union Army during the American Civil War and served with distinction as the surgeon-in-chief at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. In 1871, he settled in Chatham, where he established a medical practice and served as president of the Wilberforce Educational Institute. He also became Kent County’s first Black coroner, president of the Chatham Medical Society and associate editor of the Missionary Messenger, the official publication of the British Methodist Episcopal Church. Abbott eventually returned to Toronto. He is buried at the Toronto Necropolis.


    Anderson Ruffin Abbott naît à Toronto, en 1837. Ses parents, Wilson et Ellen Toyer Abbott, sont des personnes de couleur libres arrivées au Canada en 1835, en quête d’une meilleure situation financière et de justice sociale. Il fréquente l’école de l’établissement Elgin, près de Chatham, et étudie par la suite à la Toronto School of Medicine. Il obtient son permis d’exercice de la médecine en 1861, devenant le premier médecin de descendance africaine né au Canada. Après avoir obtenu son diplôme, le Dr Abbott devient l’un des huit chirurgiens noirs que compte l’Armée de l’Union durant la guerre de Sécession; il sert avec distinction comme chirurgien en chef au Freedmen’s Hospital à Washington, D.C. En 1871, il s’installe à Chatham, où il ouvre un cabinet de médecin et devient président du Wilberforce Educational Institute. Il devient également le premier coroner noir du comté de Kent, président de la Chatham Medical Society et rédacteur en chef associé du Missionary Messenger, publication officielle de l’Église épiscopale méthodiste britannique. Le Dr Abbott finit ses jours à Toronto. Il est inhumé à la nécropole de Toronto.

Historical background

Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott was a man of great accomplishments. He was a well-educated scholar, a decorated veteran of the American Civil War, and an accomplished musician and lecturer. He was an active community leader and a prominent member of the church community. Abbott was a Canadian of African ancestry and his achievements are even more remarkable considering that they occurred in the 19th century, at a time when both respect and opportunities for social, political and economic advancement were denied to many African Canadians. During his lifetime, Dr. Abbott broke colour barriers in some of Canada’s most distinguished institutions, challenged segregation through his exceptional accomplishments and gained the admiration of some of the most prominent families in North America. While he made no claims to being a radical, and by most accounts lived an unassuming life, Dr. Abbott will be remembered by history as the most unlikely of pioneers, setting a precedent of scholarly professionalism that many future African Canadians would follow.

Anderson’s father, Wilson Abbott, was a carpenter by trade, who, at the age of 15, moved from Richmond, Virginia, to Mobile, Alabama, where he worked at a hotel in order to earn his room and board. Not one to be deterred by the racism of the deep South, Wilson Abbott also found work on a Mississippi steamboat. He met and married Anderson’s mother, Ellen Toyer, in 1830. The industrious pair were “free people of colour” who lived in Mobile where they operated a general provisions store and owned several properties. However, because of increasing discriminatory laws against free African-Americans, the couple fled Mobile. They moved to New Orleans and later New York, before they left the United States altogether and settled in Canada in 1835. The Abbotts spent the remainder of their lives in Toronto, where Wilson became a successful and wealthy businessman,1 and the couple was active in abolitionist circles. It was here that Anderson was born in 1837.2

Wilson and Ellen Toyer Abbott wanted the best for their children, and education was an important means of gaining opportunities, particularly for people of African descent. At an early age, Anderson was enrolled in the first class of the well-known Buxton Mission School in the Elgin Settlement, located near Chatham, Ontario. He later attended Oberlin College’s Preparatory Department in Ohio, where he received the equivalent of high school courses that prepared him for university. In 1857, Abbott entered University College in Toronto to study chemistry and, one year later, the Toronto School of Medicine, which eventually became affiliated with the University of Toronto. In 1861, the 23-year-old doctor received his licence to practise medicine, having been successfully accredited by the Medical Board of Upper Canada. Notably, he followed in the footsteps of Dr. Alexander T. Augusta (1825-1890), a free Black from Virginia. While Augusta was the first known graduate of African descent in the field of medicine in 1856,3 Abbott was the first Canadian-born Black to graduate from medical school. Abbott gained his practical medical experience under Dr. Augusta, who was head of the Toronto City Hospital4 and owned a pharmacy on Yonge Street during the 1850s.

Despite his success as a scholar and a doctor, Abbott was keenly aware of the injustices faced by enslaved Blacks who remained in the United States. At the age of 26, Abbott again followed his mentor Augusta’s lead, during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Augusta enlisted in the Union Army, and despite resistance, became the first Major and Surgeon of the 7th United States Colored Troops. In 1863, Dr. Abbott, a Canadian, petitioned the American Secretary of War directly in hopes of receiving permission to fight for the Union Army in the American Civil War. His request was granted.

In 1863, Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott became one of eight Black surgeons to serve in the Union Army. He was attached to Camp Barker, Washington D.C., and again served under Dr. Augusta. While racism persisted in the Union Army, Anderson was proud to be actively engaged in the battle to end slavery in the United States. He remained attached to all-Black regiments and encountered the racism of many whites who resented the prospect of serving in the same army alongside those of African ancestry. Nonetheless, Anderson saw the conflict through to its conclusion, serving out the remainder of the war as surgeon-in-chief at the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.,5 until resigning his post in 1866. After the war, Anderson remained in the United States while deciding where to settle and to establish his medical career. During this time, the veteran was highly honoured for his service during the conflict. He received a shawl that was worn by President Abraham Lincoln on his way to his 1861 inauguration, from the President’s widow Mary Todd Lincoln.

Dr. Abbott returned to Canada in 1871 and established his own medical practice in Chatham, Ontario. His office was located in the Hunton Block, on William Street, for nearly a decade. It was around this time that he married his wife, Mary Ann Casey, and settled into a quieter, but no less accomplished life. The Abbotts raised five children – Helene, Wilson, Grace, Ida and Gordon – who all became successful adults in their own right. Three remained in Canada and two married Americans and lived thereafter in the United States.6

As well as practising medicine, Anderson frequently lectured on topics of scholarly interest, became active in the African Canadian church, the British Methodist Episcopal Church (BME), and became a tireless advocate of education. In addition to these responsibilities, Dr. Abbott was the associate editor of the bimonthly periodical, the Missionary Messenger, a publication of the BME Church. From 1873 to 1880, Dr. Abbott was President of the Wilberforce Educational Institute, a well-respected school for Chatham’s Black students preparing for university studies.7 Dr. Abbott held positions of leadership and prominence not only in Chatham’s Black community, but the broader community as well. In 1874, he became one of the first coroners for Kent County, and its first Black coroner. He was also president of the Chatham Literary and Debating Society and, in 1878, of the Chatham Medical Society. Throughout his adult life, Anderson Ruffin Abbott cultivated an image of refined tastes and worked hard to advance his family economically and socially.

In 1881, Dr. Abbott moved his family from Chatham to Dundas, Ontario. The doctor continued to practise medicine and remained heavily involved in community affairs, particularly on issues pertaining to education and the church. He also became an administrator for the Dundas Mechanics’ Institute.8 During the 1890s, the family moved to Oakville, Toronto, and then Chicago, where the doctor assumed the position of Medical Superintendent of Provident Hospital, a new facility that catered to an African-American clientele.9 In the early 1900s, the Abbotts made a final move back to Toronto, where Dr. Abbott continued to lecture, contribute articles to various periodicals and participate actively in the life of the city. He died in December 1913, leaving a legacy of professional accomplishment and a proud record of service to his community. Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott is buried in the Toronto Necropolis.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Adrienne Shadd in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2008

1 Wilson served in the militia during the Rebellion of 1837.

2 The Abbott family story is contained in two books: Dalyce Newby, Anderson Ruffin Abbott: First Afro-Canadian Doctor, Markham, ON: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1998 and Catherine Slaney, Family Secrets: Crossing the Colour Line, Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, 2003. See also Daniel G. Hill, The Freedom-Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada, Agincourt, ON: The Book Society of Canada, 1981, Chapter 12 entitled “The Freedom Seekers.”

3 Dr. Augusta attended Trinity Medical College in Toronto.

4 Now the Toronto General Hospital.

5 Freedmen’s Hospital (now the Howard University Hospital) served the Black community in the District of Columbia for more than a century. First established in 1862 on the grounds of the Camp Barker, Freedmen’s Hospital and Asylum cared for freed, disabled and aged Blacks. In 1863, it was placed under the directorship of Dr. Alexander Augusta, the first African-American to head a hospital in the United States. After the Civil War, it became the teaching hospital of Howard University School of Medicine, established in 1868. Howard University School of Medicine became one of the few leading American medical schools dedicated to the training of Black physicians.

6 The Abbott sisters married Black men and the two brothers, white women. Catherine Slaney, great granddaughter of Abbott, has traced her family lineage and reveals how some descendants became “white” and separated from other relatives who remained “Black.” Slaney, Family Secrets, Chapters 18-21.

7 At that time, the Chatham public school system was segregated and African Canadian elementary students attended the King Street School, the only school set aside for them, in the east end of town.

8 Dundas, Ontario, had its first library services provided by the Dundas Mechanics’ Institute, which was incorporated in 1857. By 1883, it became the Dundas Public Library.

9 Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses was the first Black-owned and operated hospital in the United States, and was founded in 1891 by Dr. Daniel Hale Williams. Provident provided for the training of nurses and interns in Chicago. Prior to this, Black patients were denied admission to white hospitals and Black physicians did not have proper facilities in which to treat their patients.