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Noted Surgeon, Fine Citizen: The life of Archibald E Malloch, MD, 1844–1919

July 22, 2010

By Stefania Crowther

Born and educated initially in Ontario, Canada, Archibald (Archie) Edward Malloch (1844–1919) completed his medical training at the University of Glasgow between 1864 and 1867, and then served as dresser and House Surgeon to Joseph Lister at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary in 1868. On his return to Canada in 1869, he established a medical practice in the burgeoning city of Hamilton, Ontario, where he applied Lister’s principles of antisepsis to his surgery.

Malloch was a contemporary and friend of Sir William Osler, but, as Charles Roland expresses it in this, the first published monograph on Malloch: “Their careers differed markedly – Osler became an international figure, author of important papers and monographs and of what was, for decades, the best textbook in English, professor in four universities in three countries – Archie a Hamilton practitioner for fifty years, undistinguished and unheralded except locally.”

Roland argues for Malloch’s importance as the first to introduce Listerism to Canada, and to defend antisepsis and germ theory against those such as William Canniff (1830–1910) who sarcastically denied the potential for “mischievous little animals floating in the air to commit depredations”, believing that “nature will invariably heal if not interfered with”.

Roland has surmounted a significant obstacle in composing the book, that of the lack of primary evidence. Malloch was not a devoted keeper of case notes, and he published only 13 medical articles. Roland infers from comments in letters from Malloch to his son, such as: “it is a gift to be able to write as you seemingly do with’t trouble”, that Malloch was not confident as a writer. Roland paints a remarkably clear portrait of the man through careful reading of the scant evidence at his disposal, particularly letters to Malloch from his mother, and detailing the social and medical milieu in which he lived and worked. Roland’s approach makes the book a joy to read, and it will appeal to the non-specialist at the same time as making an important contribution to scholarship on 19th-century Canadian medical history.

The first three chapters are concerned with Malloch’s upbringing in Brockville, Ontario. These discuss: his parents, George and Elizabeth; the medical curriculum and teaching at Queen’s College, Kingston, where he began his training; and “the day to day illnesses, accidents, and various traumas” suffered by citizens of Brockville that preoccupied physicians and that his mother often mentioned in her letters. The following chapter takes us to Glasgow. Roland begins by sketching the answers to two questions: “What was Glasgow like in the middle of the nineteenth century? What of its medical world?” before explaining the significance of this period of Malloch’s life, when he met Lister, the man whose ‘disciple’ he was to become, and when he developed partial deafness. Roland is at his best in the four chapters on Malloch’s medical practice in Hamilton, and his sadly unsuccessful venture to establish a medical school in there. In these he is able to draw on Malloch’s case notes and publications. Finally, Roland turns his attention to Malloch’s domestic life, friends and leisure pursuits.

A biography based on scarce primary evidence is necessarily dissatisfying in places, such as when Roland admits: “Of his day-to-day professional life we have no specific details. It can safely be concluded that he saw the full range of disorders, real and imagined, that afflicted Ontarians.” To evoke for the reader what that might include, Roland employs a long quotation from Mark Twain. What can be known about Malloch himself is supplemented with longer passages about his family, friends and colleagues than one might find in a biography more helpful to the historian. The tenth chapter, for example, on the relationship between the Osler family and the Mallochs, concentrates instead on his son, Thomas Archibald (1887–1953). This is nonetheless interesting reading: ‘T Archie’ became almost a surrogate son to the Oslers, and a great comfort after the untimely death of their own son, Edward Revere, from wounds in Belgium in 1917. As librarian of the New York Academy of Medicine, T Archie played an important role in cataloguing William Osler’s many papers, which contributed to building his dominant legacy at the expense of less prolific contemporaries, who fell into historical obscurity, including, somewhat ironically, T Archie’s own father.

Although Roland ultimately deserts his stated aim, of introducing Malloch into the canon of men who have made notable contributions to Canadian medicine, this book is extremely worthwhile, and will stand as the most authoritative and engaging work on Malloch for some time.

Roland CG. Noted Surgeon, Fine Citizen: The life of Archibald E Malloch, MD, 1844–1919. Montreal: Osler Library and American Osler Society; 2008.

Stefania Crowther is a Research Assistant at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL.

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