Canada's Dr. William Rawlins Beaumont

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Coincidentally enough, there are two "Dr. William Beaumonts" who are both significant in medical history. Our family is related to the American Dr. William Beaumont (1785-1853), who researched the human digestive system; however, in the interest of sharing information with fellow Internet users, we are including this page on the Canadian Dr. William Rawlins Beaumont (1803-1875), surgeon and inventor. At present, we do not know if the two Dr. Beaumonts are related.


The Canadian Dr. Beaumont was born on Beaumont Street in Marylebone in London's west end, England, in September 1803 to Edward and Charlotte Beaumont, whose ancestors probably emigrated from France to England at the start of the 14th century. William was baptized in the Anglican Church of St. Marylebone in the parish of St. Mary's. William remained close to his elder brother Edward Beaumont (born 1801) even after William moved away to Canada; their sister Ann died in infancy (about 1797).

Dr. William Rawlins Beaumont
Dr. William Rawlins Beaumont
from a painting in the
Academy of Medicine, Toronto

As a child, William attended private schools in England. For his medical training, Beaumont studied at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London. Among his teachers was Sir William Lawrence (1783-1867), an anatomist and physiologist known as "one of the most distinguished eye surgeons of the early 19th century" (footnote 1). Beaumont later performed eye surgery and created several ophthalmological instruments based on some of Lawrence's designs. Lawrence himself used some of Beaumont's creations (footnote 2).

As common with English medical students then, after completing formal medical school, Beaumont made a medical tour of Europe. He spent ten months in Paris, where he met surgeon Jean Zulema Amussat (1796-1856), a "renowned lecturer" and "mechanical genius, and in the shops of the instrument makers many surgical instruments were made by him" (footnote 3). Amussat taught Beaumont anatomy and mechanical and craft skills. Amussat himself was highly innovative; in 1835, he developed a successful technique for implanting an artificial anus. This feat is even more impressive when you realize that operations were still very painful; ether was first used for minor operations in 1842, and chloroform was first used in surgery in 1847.

After Paris, Beaumont briefly studied surgery at the University of Brussels before returning to England. On December 23, 1826, William Rawlins Beaumont passed his examinations and became a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons; he became a Fellow in 1836. He practiced medicine in London, as surgeon at the Farringdon Dispensary near St. Bartholomew's, and also at Islington Infirmary on London's north side.

Even as a new physician, Beaumont was innovative; in 1831, he experimented on setting broken bones in rabbits. He reported his results in a 31-page pamphlet, "The Treatment of Fractures of the Leg and Forearm by Plaster of Paris" (1831), comparing different methods of immobilizing fractures (including a compound fracture) in rabbits. He was criticized for suggesting that these procedures should be used on humans.


Beaumont emigrated to Toronto, Canada in 1841, where he became known to his friends as "Beaumont of Canada." At the time, Toronto's population of about 15,000 was served by about 20 physicians. Beaumont obtained by Canadian physician's license on November 12, 1842. Two weeks later, Beaumont and his wife Mary Catherine had a daughter, Charlotte Beaumont (born November 26, 1842).

  King's College
King's College Medical School, 1844
(Godfrey, 112)

In 1843, William Rawlins Beaumont was appointed professor of surgery at the medical department of King's College (now known as the University of Toronto). The photo at right is from Charles M. Godfrey's Medicine for Ontario: a History (Belleville: Mika Publishing Company, 1979); Godfrey also wrote an article on the school, "King's College: Upper Canada's First Medical School," Ontario Medical Review, 34(1967), pages 19-22.

In 1845, Beaumont was appointed to the examiners' commission at the Upper Canada Medical Board, which licensed physicians, surgeons, and midwives. The commission had 11 members, but applicants could be questioned by a minimum quorum of only three. Their standards were high  at Beaumont's first quarterly meeting in July 1845, five out of six applicants failed; at his second meeting in October 1845, all five applicants failed. Part of the physicians' examination tested the applicants' ability to read medical references in Latin (an old British university tradition); the exam also covered subjects such as anatomy, physiology, surgery, pharmacy, and chemistry.

Toronto General Hospital
Toronto General Hospital building, 1856-1878
(George W. Spragge, from an old print)

On January 13, 1863, Beaumont lost a patient due to a chloroform overdose during surgery at Toronto General Hospital; it was his only such fatality in about 16 years of using chloroform. Beaumont and a colleague were to remove the patient's tumor; two other doctors were responsible for administering the chloroform. Beaumont's colleague had just started the surgery when the patient's pulse and breathing stopped; the team tried to resuscitate the patient but failed.

Also in 1863, Beaumont became consulting surgeon to the Toronto General Hospital, the city's largest hospital. Two years later, he became blind in his left eye; he began deferring operations to other doctors, although he continued to assist.

In June 1866, William Rawlins Beaumont volunteered his medical services to the Canadian Army during the Fenian Raids (footnote 4); for about two weeks, he and another doctor were in charge of military hospital at Port Colborne, Ontario. Beaumont returned home to Toronto in mid-June; shortly after, his wife died of consumption.


A few of William Rawlins Beaumont's more interesting cases:


Among other creations, William Rawlins Beaumont is credited with the following:


In his book, William R. Beaumont: mechanical genius, author Julian Smith thoroughly discusses this question in Chapter 12, "Did Beaumont Invent the Sewing Machine?" His conclusion:

Although Beaumont was a magnificent inventor of surgical instruments, he cannot be credited with the original concept of the sewing machine. Isaac Singer's sewing machine owed nothing to the surgical instruments of William Beaumont  neither the whole idea, nor any of its parts. . . . the principles (Singer) supposedly borrowed from Beaumont were already long known by the time Beaumont embarked on his inventive career. The eye-pointed needle dated back to the previous century [1755] while the principle of passing and arresting the thread had also received practical application long before Singer's time. It was the integration of all the parts that made a working sewing machine possible, which had already been accomplished by inventors like the Chapmans [Edward and William Chapman], [Balthasar] Krems, [Barthelemy] Thimonnier, [Walter] Hunt and [Elias] Howe. In fact, each of them (except Howe) developed their machines several years before Beaumont perfected his deep-suturing instrument. If there was any traffic in ideas, it is likely to have been in the opposite direction  from the sewing machine to Beaumont. It is even more probable that Beaumont derived some elements of his 1836 vaginal fistula instrument and his 1837 deep suturing instrument from sewing machines made years before." (footnote 8)

However, as Smith points out, Beaumont is still significant in medical history for: his surgical techniques and instruments; his teaching of a generation of Ontario doctors; his leadership within the Ontario medical profession; his pioneer work with chloroform, eye surgery, lithotomy, and facial reconstruction; and his commitment to his patients.


Sadly enough, this skilled surgeon lost sight in his left eye in 1865, ten years before his death; his right eye was also affected. For the next eight years, Beaumont was able to continue work as a surgeon, but he lost sight in his right eye in 1873 and was forced to retire. He died on October 13, 1875 at his daughter's home in Glenhurst, Toronto, Canada.


William Rawlins Beaumont (1803-1875) and his wife Mary Catherine (1822-1866) had two children:

  1. Charlotte Beaumont, who was born November 26, 1842; she died in 1931.

    SPOUSE: on October 17, 1863, in St. James' Anglican Cathedral in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Charlotte Beaumont married Edgar John Jarvis, who was born in 1835; Edgar died January 15, 1907. Edgar Jarvis's parents were Frederick Starr Jarvis and Susan Isabella Merigold.

    NOTE FOR SPOUSE: Edgar was a real estate businessman in Toronto. In 1866, Edgar and Charlotte moved to "Glenhurst, Yorkville," a house they built in an undeveloped suburb that is now the Rosedale residential area of Toronto. Charlotte and Edgar developed the Rosedale area; they later built "Sylvan Tower," Deancroft," and "Craigleigh."

    CHILDREN: Charlotte Beaumont and Edgar John Jarvis had four children:

    1. Edgar Beaumont Jarvis, born July 7, 1864
    2. Paul Jarvis, born September 4, 1865
    3. Herbert Cherriman Jarvis, born October 17, 1871
    4. Louis Raymond Jarvis, born May 19, 1874

  2. Herbert Beaumont, who was born June 21, 1851; he died in 1923.

At this time, we have no further information on Beaumont's family.


[1]Julian A. Smith, William R. Beaumont: mechanical genius, Canadian Medical Lives series, co-published in Markham, Ontario by Fitzhenry and Whiteside, c.1995 by Associated Medical Services Inc./The Hannah Institute for the History of Medicine; page 21
[2]Julian Smith, page 28
[3]M. Charlton, "William Rawlins Beaumont, F.R.C.S. (Eng.) (1803-1875)", article in Annals of Medical History, volume 3, c.1921, pages 284-285
[4]The Fenian Raids occurred when the Fenian Brotherhood  founded by Irish nationalists in the U.S.  sought to win Ireland's independence from Britain. Hundreds of Fenians attacked Canada along the Canada-U.S. border between Detroit, Michigan, and St. Albans, Vermont; they hoped that Britain would come to Canada's defense and cross the U.S. border, thus starting a war against the U.S. that would leave Britain weakened. The Fenians' plan failed, because the British would not cross the U.S. border to fight the Fenians.
[5]Julian Smith, pages 73-74
[6]Julian Smith, page 74
[7]Dr. William Rawlins Beaumont, "Clinical Lecture on a Deeply Penetrating Wound of the Head, by a Rocket-Shaft Passing through the Left Orbit", Lancet, June 14, 1862, pages 626-627
[8]Julian Smith, page 153

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