Joseph Workman

Section P, Lot 23
Toronto Necropolis

Born on May 26, 1805 in Northern Ireland, the fourth son of Joseph Workman and Catharine Goudie, young Joseph had seven brothers and one sister. Preceded by five of his brothers, young Joseph Workman and the remainder of his family immigrated to Montréal in 1829. He studied medicine at McGill College, graduating with an MD in 1835, his thesis focusing on the topical subject of the Asiatic cholera. The young medical student based his conclusions on his own experience of the devastating disease which hit Montreal in the summers of 1832 and 1834. He concluded, contrary to the prevailing medical opinion of the time, that cholera was a contagious disease. Shortly after graduation, Workman married Elizabeth Wasnidge, a native of Sheffield, England, and set up practice in Montreal but sudden death of his wife’s brother forced him to make a change of career. In 1836 he took over his brother-in-law’s hardware business in Toronto, and he was soon joined by his brother Samuel in operating Workman Brothers and Company at 36 King Street, opposite St James’ Church. Like his brothers Thomas and William, who were partners in a Montreal hardware firm, Workman was an enterprising and successful businessman. He was elected to the vice-presidency of the Toronto Board of Trade in the mid-1840s. He also became involved in the volatile politics of those years, being an articulate and outspoken champion of the Reform cause. He often wrote barbed political comment for such Reform papers as the Toronto Mirror, earning a reputation among his political foes as “the most bitter and reckless slanderer that ever handled a pen.” He was alderman for St. David’s Ward from 1847 to 1849, served on the commission appointed by the government to investigate the affairs of King’s College, and in 1850 was the first chairman of the city’s Public School Board. Workman abandoned the hardware business in 1846 to return to medicine. He built up a large practice, and was invited by Dr. John Rolph to become a lecturer in midwifery and diseases of women and children and, later, also in materia medica at Rolph’s Toronto School of Medicine. A student of Workman, Dr. Walter Bayne Geikie, remembered him as “a man of great ability and an excellent and highly educated teacher.” In 1853 his career took an abrupt turn, when he was appointed temporary and then permanent medical superintendent of the recently opened Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto. It was his friend and colleague Rolph who had secured him the appointment. The asylum had become an acute political embarrassment to the government. Rolph chose Workman to sort out the “asylum intrigues” that had plagued the institution during its short, turbulent history. Patients were treated little better than when they were housed in the local jails. Noted English alienist James Hack Tuke, who visited the temporary asylum in 1845, described it as “one of the most painful and distressing places I ever visited.” There were 70 patients “upon whose faces misery, starvation, and suffering were indelibly impressed.” The first two wings of the permanent asylum opened in January of 1850, but did little to improve the lot of the inmates. Against a background of administrative chaos, professional incompetence, and neglect of patients, Workman assumed the post of interim superintendent of the institution in 1853. His powers were enhanced by the asylum act which went into effect in June of 1853, and which reduced the size of the asylum board, and gave him control over the asylum’s day to day affairs and the power to hire and fire the “Keepers and Servants.” Workman moved quickly to clean up, literally, the mess his predecessors had left. Among his first unenviable tasks was to oversee the removal of “the most foul and enormous cesspool” which had built up to a depth of three or four feet under the basement, because the builders had failed to connect the drains to the main sewer. With Workman’s administrative hand at the helm, order and efficiency were soon restored. The Toronto asylum became recognised as a model institution, much praised both in Canada and abroad. Workman was permanently appointed superintendent on 1 April 1854 and remained at the helm for the next 21 years. Knowing little or nothing about insanity and the care and treatment thereof, had to learn his new profession as an alienist (which was what specialists in the field were called until “psychiatrist” came into use in the 1890s) on the job. Joseph Workman retired from the Toronto asylum in July 1875 “for reasons understood by myself.” The 19 years following his retirement, during which he lived at his home on 113 Mutual Street, were happier ones. He received many honours: being elected president of the Canadian Medical Association (1877), the Toronto Medical Society (1878), and the Ontario Medical Association (1881). In these posts he was an ardent defender of medicine’s right to true professional status and autonomy. He enjoyed a reputation as an expert in psychiatric matters not only at home but internationally. He was the first Canadian alienist to be made an honorary member of the prestigious Royal Medico-Psychological Association of Great Britain. In Canada he was often called as an expert medical witness at criminal trials. An accomplished linguist, he spent much of his time translating Italian and Spanish articles on psychiatry for publication in the leading North American medical journals. He lectured widely in Ontario and at meetings of the Canadian Institute, and he published papers on a variety of subjects. He died on Sunday, 15 April 1894 at the age of 89, busy and engaged to the end.

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