Tag: McGill University

Dr. Joseph Workman, Pioneer in the Treatment of Mental Illness

If you have been watching the miniseries “Alias Grace” on CBC television or Netflix, you may remember a scene featuring a grey-haired gentleman with long sideburns. That character was based on the real-life physician Dr. Joseph Workman, known as the Father of Canadian Psychiatry.

The television show is based on the book of the same name by Margaret Atwood, a fictionalized account of the life of Grace Marks, an Irish-born servant girl convicted in 1843 of a double murder near Toronto. Grace was held at the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto at about the time that Dr. Workman became superintendent of the asylum.

Neither the book nor the television show makes it clear whether Grace was insane, or whether she was guilty of murder. There is little doubt, however, that Joseph Workman was a kind and intelligent man who made important contributions to the treatment of mental illness. In fact, he came from quite an extraordinary family.

Joseph (1805-1894) was born in Ballymacash, near Lisburn, County Antrim, Ireland (now Northern Ireland). His parents were Joseph Workman Sr. (1759-1848) and Catherine Gowdie (1769-1872). Joseph Jr. was the fourth of nine children — eight boys and one girl. His only sister, Ann Workman (1809-1882), who married Montreal hardware merchant Henry Mulholland, was my direct ancestor. 

The Workmans brought up their children to value hard work, education and Christian charity. Holding liberal views, they were members of the Non-subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland and they eventually became Unitarians. 

The Workmans were not wealthy and they lived in a cozy cottage in the village, surrounded by fields and farmland. Joseph Sr. worked as a miller and as a teacher, then as land steward (manager) for a local landowner.

Joseph Jr. attended school around Lisburn and, after graduation, worked as a land surveyor for three years. In 1819, his oldest brother, Benjamin, immigrated to Montreal, where he became a teacher and newspaper publisher. Over the next 10 years, the Workman siblings, tired of the poverty, poor harvests and religious strife around them, all left Ireland for Canada. Joseph and his parents arrived in Montreal in 1829.

Joseph taught school and studied to become a doctor at the same time, obtaining a medical degree from McGill University in 1835. His thesis focused on the infectious nature of cholera (a radical idea at the time) after he watched the deadly disease sweep through the city in 1832 and 1834. 

He married Elizabeth Wasnidge in 1835 and the couple eventually had 10 children, four of whom died young. In 1836, they moved to Toronto, where Joseph ran the Wasnidge family hardware business. For 10 years, he kept up his reading on medicine before finally leaving the business to concentrate on medicine. He built up a busy practice and taught at the Toronto School of Medicine.

He was appointed superintendent of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in 1853 and remained there until 1882.

At first, Joseph knew little about mental illness, but it was easy to see that the asylum was filthy and overcrowded, and that the patients were neglected. He improved the institution’s efficiency and made sure the patients had good food and generous amounts of alcohol. His treatment approach focused on moral therapy:  kindness, truthfulness, social entertainment and religious instruction. Although cure rates did not improve, he did make progress in the humane treatment of the mentally ill. 

The Workman brothers all achieved success in Canada. Alexander Workman became mayor of Ottawa, William was a successful hardware merchant and mayor of Montreal, Thomas became a prosperous businessman, and Benjamin had several careers, including teaching and medicine. Joseph and Benjamin were instrumental in establishing the Unitarian Church in Toronto and Montreal.

But biographer Christine L.M. Johnston considered Joseph to be the greatest of them all “because he radically changed the whole field of psychiatry, and not just in Canada. He influenced as well American superintendents of Lunatic Asylums…. Like most pioneers, he did not claim to be totally original – he introduced the new ideas initiated in Europe. Yet he was constantly exploring new avenues on his own after that.” 1

This article is also posted on www.genealogyensemble.com

See also:

Janice Hamilton, “Henry Mulholland, Montreal Hardware Merchant,”Writing Up the Ancestors,March 17, 2016, https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2016/03/henry-mulholland-montreal-hardware.html


  1. Christine Johnston. “The Irish Connection: Benjamin and Joseph and their Brothers and their Coats of Many Colours,” CUUHS Meeting, May 1982, Paper #4, p. 6.

Other sources: 

Christine I. M. Johnston, The Father of Canadian Psychiatry: Joseph Workman, Victoria: The Ogden Press, 2000.

Thomas E. Brown, “Joseph Workman,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto Press/Université Laval, 1990, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/workman_joseph_12E.html, accessed Oct. 23, 2017. 

The Digger, One Family’s Journey from Ballymacash to Canada, Lisburn.com, http://lisburn.com/history/digger/Digger-2011/digger-19-08-2011.html, accessed Oct. 20, 2017.

There is an extensive database of the Workman family online called A Family Orchard: Leaves from the Workman Tree, http://freepages.misc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~database/WORKMAN.htm

Annie Louise Smith: One of the First Women to Graduate from McGill University

At the turn of the century, Annie Louise Smith belonged to an exclusive group of young women known as the Donaldas. They were the first women to graduate from McGill University in Montreal. The university began accepting female students in 1884 and Louise and 13 other women made up the Donalda class of 1897.

Louise and the Donaldas

The nickname Donalda was a reference to Donald A. Smith, a Scottish-born businessman who spent many years with the Hudson Bay Company and played an important role in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. He provided a substantial endowment to the university on condition that the standard of education for women be the same as that for men.

As far as I know, Louise was not related to Donald Smith. Her father, John Murray Smith, was a bank manager who had come to Canada from Scotland as a child. Louise was lucky because, according to a family story, her father believed in education for women, however, he died in 1894 and did not see her graduate.

Louise was born 11 August, 1875 in Peterborough, Ontario, where her father was manager of the Bank of Toronto. Her mother was Jane Mulholland, the daughter of a Montreal hardware merchant. Louise was one of six children: she had an older brother, Henry (1873-1891), and four younger siblings: May (1877-1953), Fred (1879-1956, my future grandfather), Ella (1881-1964) and Mabel (1884-1966). None of her siblings followed Louise to university.

The family left Peterborough in 1877 when Louise’s father was transferred to Montreal. They lived downtown for the first few years, and, in 1881, they moved into a stone house in a newly developed part of the city on McGregor Avenue (now Docteur Penfield Avenue), on the slope of Mount Royal.

Young women of Louise’s background were not expected to work, even if they had a degree; they were supposed to get married and let their husbands support them. It took Louise several years, however, to find the right man. In 1906, she married Frederic Samuel Macfarlane (1871-1918), who ran a retail lumber business with his father. Their first child, Anne, arrived two years later. In the early years of their marriage, Louise and Fred lived with his parents on Selkirk Avenue, a tiny street just down the hill from the house where Louise had grown up. 

Louise and Fred with Anne and Isobel on vacation at Cacouna

Montreal was a growing city and the lumber business did well. Around 1912, Fred and his father opened a west-end branch of the store and the family moved to a larger house on Sydenham Avenue in Westmount. The house was soon full as Louise and Fred had four children: Anne (b. 1908), Isobel (b.1909), Robert (b.1912) and Alice (b.1914).

Ad in Lovell’s Directory

In 1916, father-in-law Robert Macfarlane died. Two years later, Fred died. Suddenly, Louise was a widow with four young children to raise and a family business with no leadership. She arranged for people to run the store, but they did not have the Macfarlanes’ knowledge of the lumber business, and it soon failed. Fortunately, she had enough money to remain in the house on Sydenham and to send two of her own children to university.

Louise often visited her mother and three unmarried sisters, who still lived together in the house on McGregor, and they all celebrated Christmas and birthdays together. Her brother, Fred Murray Smith, and his wife also lived nearby.  

When daughter Anne got married in August 1934, Louise was described in the marriage register as a librarian. No doubt the job didn’t pay much, but she probably found it satisfying. However, Louise was now living on borrowed time.

In April 1935, her second daughter, Isobel, got married in the family home on Sydenham. This time when Louise signed as a witness, her hand was shaky. She had cancer. In August, Anne gave birth to the first of Louise’s ten grandchildren. Louise died on Sept. 18, 1935, age 60, and is buried with her husband in Mount Royal Cemetery.

Photo Credits: Donaldas class of 97, Old McGill 98, p. 45, http://yearbooks.mcgill.ca/viewbook.php?campus=downtown&book_id=1898#page/56/mode/2up. Courtesy Benny Beattie. Lovell’s Montreal Directory (1842-1992), 1912-1913, p. 1536, bibnum2.banq.ca/bna/lovell/index.html


See the online article about women at McGill: Blazing Trails: McGill’s Women, https://www.mcgill.ca/about/history/features/mcgill-women

This story relies to a great extent on family stories. I used Lovell’s Directory (bibnum2.banq.ca/bna/lovell/) to track the family’s movements in Montreal, and Ancestry.ca, familysearch.org and cemetery records to check birth, marriage and death dates. I have not found the marriage record; not all Presbyterian records are included in the Drouin Collection of Quebec Vital and Church Records. Nor did I find them in the 1911 census, but that could be an indexing issue; Lovell’s told me where they lived.