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Canadian Medical Lives

Series edited by T.P. Morley, M.D.

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William R. Beaumont: Mechanical Genius

By: Julian Smith

Published: Fitzhenry & Whiteside (1995)

ISBN: 1550411594

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William Rawlings Beaumont was one of the most important and influential surgeons of Upper Canada. Born in London, England, in 1803, Beaumont studied under the renowned surgeon John Abernethy (1764-1831) at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, becoming a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1826. During the 1830s he invented several important surgical instruments, including a device for stitching which was claimed to be the origin of the Singer Sewing Machine.

In 1841 Beaumont came to Toronto where he joined King's College (now the University of Toronto) and received the joint appointment of Professor of Surgery at the College and Senior Surgeon at the Toronto General Hospital. By 1845 he had been appointed to the powerful Upper Canada Medical Board whose members exclusively controlled the licensing of physicians in the colony.

Beaumont eventually ran the university's faculty of medicine while he continued his clinical teaching at the hospital, becoming its consulting physician upon the death of his close friend Christopher Widmer 11780-1858). He invented more medical instruments, lectured at the Toronto School of Medicine and became professor of surgery in 1871 at the University of Trinity College. He died in his Toronto home in 1875.

Beaumont has been called "the father of surgical instruments in Upper Canada," "the doyen of surgeons of Toronto" and "one of the most patient and painstaking" of physicians. An outstanding surgeon, teacher and administrator, Beaumont worked with all the leading doc- tors of Upper Canada and trained a generation of Canadian physicians, including medical historian William Canniff (1830-1910), who predicted that "his memory will be held in veneration by the profession." Canniff was right. Beaumont's most famous student, Sir William Osler (1849-1919), immortalized his teacher in his Aequanimitas (1904). To Osler, Beaumont was "the highest type of the cultivated English surgeon" whose fine example raised the entire profession above the "dead level of business."

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