A consummate stylist, Andrew Macphail first demonstrated unusual writing talent in 1891 when, as a graduating medical student at McGill University, he won an essay contest on vivisection sponsored by the American Humane Education Society, open to the English-speaking world, and juried by Harvard University medical professors. After further medical study in London, Macphail settled into the practice and teaching of medicine in Montreal. It was only after the death of his wife in 1902 that the balance of his commitments began to shift toward writing. In the next year he became editor of the Montreal Medical Journal, and in 1911 he became founding editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal. The subject of his inaugural editorial in the national periodical was style in medical writing.
It was as an essayist that Macphail emerged as a Canadian literary figure. In 1905 he published Essays in Puritanism, a collection of studies on such figures as John Wesley and Margaret Fuller, whom he interpreted as representing or reacting against the faith.
This book established MacphaiPs position as a serious writer; however, it also lacked unity, consisting of individual sketches originally delivered to a group of writers and painters in Montreal, the Pen and Pencil Club.
Four years later Essays in Politics was published. Focusing on Canada’s role within the British Empire, Macphail emphasized the common ground of Canada and Great Britain, the growing maturity of Canada, and the need for it to assume more responsibility in such matters as imperial defense. “We cannot share in the glory of the Empire unless we share in its danger and, to put it bluntly, in the expense of it.” He was unequivocally on the side of imperial federation, and against autonomy, in the public debate over Canada’s future.
With increasing trenchancy, he also criticized the advance of industry at the expense of agriculture, a trend he identified with materialism. The book was favorably noticed in Britain, and the Canadian Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, wrote to Macphail that he had read it “through & through.”
In 1910 Macphail published Essays in Fallacy, consisting of critiques of modern trends in education, theology, and gender relations. His perspective was strongly traditionalist, and reflected his deep distrust of industrial civilization. He excoriated the phenomenon of “the American woman,” by which he meant a social type not confined to the United States and not including most female Americans. This was woman removed from her
“natural” role within the family, and the root cause of the removal was industrialization, which had taken outside the family the domestic tasks in which woman’s nature would find fulfillment. In education, he condemned utilitarian values and emphasis on job training, which he attributed to the influence of industry and the acquiescence of educators. By also focusing on the alleged atrophy of craftsmanship and artistry which resulted from the confusion of education with training, and upon the potential in the modern process for dehumanization, his essay revealed the positive vision which lay behind his social criticism. His conservative social views increasingly occupied an equal position with his imperialism as a basis for his reputation and influence.
World War I had a major impact on Macphail, and initially he hoped that the war would cleanse and simplify modern civilization. Although almost blind in one eye, and about to turn 50, he insisted on enlisting for service at the front; he would eventually write the official history of the Canadian medical services during the conflict. His final collection of essays, Three Persons (1929), consisted of critical studies of Sir Henry Hughes Wilson, Edward Mandell House, and T.E.Lawrence, all three having emerged into public prominence during the course of the war. The book’s distinctiveness lay in Macphail’s method: in each case his only sources were the published reminiscences of the subject. There were enormous variations in tone as the three memoirists received radically different treatment.
Within Canadian letters, and for the genre of the essay in Canada, Macphail was important, as well, for his work as editor of the University Magazine, a quarterly he published out of his Montreal home, starting in 1907, the year he was appointed first professor of the history of medicine at McGill. His magazine addressed the educated reader, but it clearly reached beyond the small corps of academic professionals in Canada, for circulation approached 6000 at its peak; in Canada this was an unprecedented number for a quality quarterly and has not been matched since. The magazine provided such essayists as Maurice Hutton, Archibald MacMechan, Stephen Leacock, and Macphail himself with a forum. Macphail published 43 pieces in it, and all but one of his ten essays in Essays in Politics had originally appeared there. As an editor, he insisted on paying for submissions (usually 25 dollars), a policy MacMechan later described as “revolutionary.” Macphail’s absence during the war caused a decline in quality and circulation, which he was unable to reverse in 1919–20, and he discontinued the magazine.
Macphail was an exceptionally versatile author, who wrote in an authoritative tone on almost everything from aesthetics to science. The range of his writing made him the leading Canadian example of the “man of letters,” who is distinguished from other members of the intelligentsia by his breadth and lack of an exclusive specialization. He attacked overspecialization even in medicine, which he identified particularly with
American influences. In 1927 he published an essay titled “American Methods in Medical Education”; never fearing controversy, he had delivered it first to an American medical body. Although he experimented with many other genres, he never forsook the essay and, in his lifetime, it was as an essayist that he was best known. In 1932 he remarked to Lord Beaverbrook that “the essay form…is my trade.” His epigrammatic style, idiosyncratic perspectives, and ironic wit were especially well adapted to it. The function of his essays, in his view, was to make for “more correct…thought.”
IAN ROSS ROBERTSON
John Andrew McPhail; spelled his surname Macphail, from c. 1893. Born 24 November 1864 in Orwell, Prince Edward Island. Studied locally and at Prince of Wales College, Charlottetown, P.E.I.; taught for three years, then studied at McGill University, Montreal, B.A., 1888, M.D., 1891. Married Georgina Nightingale Burland, 1893 (died, 1902).
Professor of medicine, University of Bishop’s College, Montreal, 1893–1905; also practiced medicine for ten years; professor of the history of medicine, McGill University, 1907–37. Editor, Montreal Medical Journal, from 1903: merged it with another medical periodical and founded the Canadian Medical Association Journal, 1911; founding editor, the University Magazine, 1907–20. Served in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, 1915–19: made a Major. Knighted, 1918. Spent summers at family home in Orwell, where he conducted agricultural experiments. Died (after heart attacks) in Montreal, 23 September 1938.
Essays and Related Prose
Essays in Puritanism, 1905
Essays in Politics, 1909
Essays in Fallacy, 1910
Three Persons, 1929
Other writings: a novel, poetry, the official history of the Canadian medical services in World War I, a work on the Bible in Scotland, and The Master’s Wife (1939), a semiautobiographical memoir of Prince Edward Island in his youth. Also translated Maria Chapdelaine: A Romance of French Canada by Louis Hémon (1921).
Robertson, Ian Ross, Sir Andrew Macphail as a Social Critic (dissertation), Toronto: University of Toronto, 1974:368–83
Edgar, O.P., “Sir Andrew Macphail,” Queen’s Quarterly 54 (Spring 1947):8–22
Leacock, Stephen, “Andrew Macphail,” Queen’s Quarterly 45 (Winter 1938):445–52
Robertson, Ian Ross, Sir Andrew Macphail as a Social Critic (dissertation), Toronto: University of Toronto, 1974
Robertson, Ian Ross, “Andrew Macphail: A Holistic Approach,” Canadian Literature 107 (Winter 1985):179–86
Shortt, S.E.D., “Essayist, Editor, and Physician: The Career of Sir Andrew Macphail,”
Canadian Literature 96 (Spring 1983):49–58
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