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Dr. Edward Van Cortlandt - The Valley's First Renaissance Man

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

The eclectic, eccentric, execrable Edward Van Cortlandt (Dr.)

The most colourful people in the history books are the ones who stood out from the crowd, the ones who accomplished great things in unusual ways, the ones whose behaviour was decidedly different.

From this public notice, posted on August 19, 1848, we get the story of one of early Bytown's most ... ahem ... colourful citizens.

From the collections of the Bytown Museum

It was obviously a nasty dispute between Dr. Edward Van Cortlandt [1] and Robert Hervey Jr. who would be Mayor of Bytown the next year, in 1849. I love the way Hervey calls Van Cortland’s character into question.

Hervey's harangue has to be one of the best congeries of calumny ever broadcast in Bytown. Wouldn't it be great if we could all just throw up hate-posters like this all over town today? Oh wait ... sorry, I forgot ... Facebook!

More dirt later ...

A fine doctor and humanitarian

In early Bytown, Dr. Edward Van Cortlandt definitely stood out from the crowd. He wasn't the first doctor to arrive in Bytown but he certainly was the most remarkable one, in his day.

Dr. Edward Van Cortlandt at 59 years old in 1864

He studied medicine in Quebec, from 1819 to 1825, and was named to the position of librarian at the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society in London for three years before returning to Canada.

He arrived in Bytown just in time to set up his medical practice and serve through the cholera epidemic of 1834.

His many contributions as a physician in Bytown & Ottawa included volunteering his services in the lower Bytown hospital of the Grey Nuns of the Cross under Elisabeth Bruyère; serving as appointed physician and later consulting physician to the General Hospital after 1851; doing duty as coroner of the city of Ottawa (he assisted in the autopsy of Thomas D'Arcy McGee); was physician to the county gaol; and surgeon to the Ottawa Field Battery.

However, as much as his reputation as a doctor was laudable, it was his other significant pursuits in science that made him the Ottawa Valley's first Renaissance Man.

What the heck is a Silurian Society?

At different times, he was secretary to the Board of Arts and Manufactures of Montreal and president of the Ottawa Horticultural Society. He was a noted Naturalist, devoted to horticulture, ichthyology and herpetology, publishing several scientific papers on the diverse species of the Ottawa Valley.

Just looking at his picture, though, you might think of him more as Eddie Van Cortlandt, ageing rockstar ... and you wouldn't be far off the mark: One of his passions was also geology! (Get it? rock star? ... apologies to both the reader and Eddie Van Halen!)

As a founding member of the Ottawa Silurian Society, Dr. Van Cortlandt spent a great deal of time canoeing up and down the Ottawa River, and tramping through the wilderness to record the fossiliferous and geological riches of the Valley.

Cornerstone of the Centre Block of Canada's Parliament Buildings

It was he who pointed the builders of Parliament to where they could find the large deposits of golden sandstone from which the Parliament buildings would be built. He was also the one who first discovered the white marble outcrops in Portage-du-Fort, from which the massive cornerstone of the Centre Block was hewn.

As President of the Bytown Mechanics’ Institute and Athenaeum, he published at least one report on archeology in the 1853 Canadian Journal and he created a private museum of geology and archeology and opened it to the public.

Bones finds some bones ...

Archaeology, you ask? That too? Yes and yes. He was involved in a discovery that would eventually cause no small amount of controversy. It came about " ... whilst some workmen were engaged in digging sand from a pit immediately in the rear of Bédard's Hotel, at Hull, they accidentally came upon some human bones." (Bytown Gazette, 1843). Bédard's Hotel - or the Kings Inn as it was originally named when built by Philemon Wright - sat at the Hull Steamboat Landing, what is now the shoreline of the Canadian Museum of History.

In an article he published in 1853, the doctor himself, described the scene:

Bédard's Hotel (Kings Inn) at the Hull Landing 1872

"In the summer of the year 1843, whilst some workman were engaged in digging sand for the mortar used in the construction of the piers of the wire suspension bridge at Bytown (the Union Bridge), suddenly came in contact with a number of human bones, and having been apprized (sic) of the circumstances, I lost no time in proceeding to the scene of their operations.  A very little investigation served to shew (sic) they had discovered an Indian burial-place.  Nothing possibly could have been more happily chosen for sepulture than the spot in question, situated on a projecting point of land directly in rear of their encampment, at a carrying place, and about half a mile below the mighty cataract of the Chaudière; it at once demonstrated a fact handed down to us by tradition, that the aborigines were in the habit, when they could, of burying their dead near running waters." 

Many years later, when it became known that the bones and artifacts were in the collections of the (then) Museum of Civilization, the Chief of the Kitigan Zibi Algonquin Anishinàbeg asked for and were granted custody of the remains for reinterment.

... and now, the dirt

However accomplished Dr. Van Cortlandt may have been, what seems most interesting about the man today - for me, at least (I blush to write) - are the many skirmishes he was involved in. What seems to be at the root of them all is that he had a fiery temper, a talent for carrying a grudge, all fuelled by an ego as big as all outdoors. It appears that he was not a man who was ever about to shrink from a fight.

In 1903, Dr. Henry Beaumont Small, Canadian Naturalist, described Dr. Van Cortlandt as follows:

"He was odd and eccentric in his manner and his dress – brusque, sharp and even rough in his speech ... He was impetuous and quick-tempered; ever ready to imagine a slight and equally prepared to resent a fancied grievance. Beneath the rough exterior there was a kind and sympathetic nature ... My own distinct recollections are of his rapid and sprightly walk, and his habit of snatching boys' caps as he passed them by."

Around 1839 Van Cortlandt was involved in an assault against one Lieutenant Hadden over pet animals. I wish I knew what kind of animals we're talking about here but there is no further anecdote from the source - too bad they didn't have Facebook, back then.

The last execrably egregious episode of the Bones's boorish behaviour is a sapidly salacious saga (beat that, Robert Hervey Jr.!) that begins with the birth of Ruggles Wright's eighth son and ends with a slanderous letter from the hand of our dear doctor.

Ruggles' son was named Edward VanCortland Wright ... so we know there was at least great admiration on Ruggles' part, if not a close relationship with Dr. Van Cortlandt.

When Ruggles's father, Philemon Wright, had a series of strokes in 1839, that left him unable to speak for months before his death, it was Dr. Van Cortlandt who was called to the Old Squire's sickbed.

Thereafter, two things happened: first, Ruggles, who was experiencing financial difficulties at the time, did not pay the doctor for his services, and then, the doctor sued Ruggles for payment. We can assume the two were having a spat.

Page of letter from Van Cortlandt to Henry Morgan, 1861

The next thing that happens is a letter appears in 1861, written by Dr. Van Cortlandt to Mr. Henry James Morgan. Morgan was an historical biographer of note. It appears that Mr. Morgan had asked the doctor to share his thoughts on Philemon Wright for a future biographical article.

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography has very good things to say about Mr. Morgan: "Morgan’s purpose seems always to have been twofold: to promote the political and cultural condition of Canadian society, and to provide a medium for the public appreciation of the individuals behind this development."

Nonetheless, in the letter, Dr. Van Cortlandt gratuitously tears a significant strip off the backs of anyone named Wright. After accusing Philemon of dying from "a too firm allegiance to King Alcohol!!!!!" (see NOTE, below) he then goes after his four sons, stating that Philemon was “... unworthily represented by his successor (Ruggles, who is) one of four (sons) who have all gone in the same way in the same direct family. On their foreheads with upwards of 20 of his progeny (sic) have been hurried to an early grave by the potency of this magician’s spell … the Stamp of Grog!!!”

(NOTE: Philemon died at 79 of a series of strokes, his eldest son, Philemon Jr., died of a broken neck at 38, and Tiberius died of influenza)

This vulgar, vituperative verdict (sorry, can't help myself) continues as he then targeted the Wright women, saving his worst for them: "... the female descendants are all too prone to love the rougher sex, in other words without an exception all are W____S - of course I mean Wheel-barrows!! ... the number of Calves are unique in that family."

Luckily, Mr. Morgan did not use any part of the doctor's malevolent musings in his own biographical notes written about Philemon Wright.

The final word ...

Generally, it must be said that every man is a complicated mix of good and bad and Edward Van Cortlandt was no different. He died in 1875, and from his obituary in a local journal, we read the last word on the good doctor:

“The Doctor is considered to be the first physician in medical skill in this part of the country.  He was a man of quick perceptions, and rather a blunt manner but underneath lay a warm heart to the poor, of which his talent was always at their command.   Another characteristic of the man was in what he believed to be his duty, he feared not the face of man.  One instance of the above was a letter published by us in the “Banner,” some years back against the County Fathers for their treatment of prisoners in the jail, termed Calcutta Black Hole. The poor have lost a warm friend and Ottawa has lost her best physician.”

(Reprinted from A History of Old Bytown and Vicinity, Andrew Wilson, 1875, pg. 58)

Dr. Van Cortlandt 1870 - Topley

"Photograph of Dr. Edward Van Cortlandt, September 1870, by William James Topley, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa (copy negative number E002505151). Dr. Van Cortlandt's father and other relatives had been involved in the military (Moffat 1973:1-2).Moreover, in the early years of Bytown Dr. Van Cortlandt served as military medical attendant for the military hospital on Barracks Hill (today Parliament Hill in Ottawa).Moffat (1973:30-31) also relates that the Ottawa Times reported that “His funeral took place with full military honours…with his regiment, the Field Battery…in attendance.” *

[1] His name was also spelled van Cortlandt, Van Courtland.

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Thank you for such a fascinating portrait of Dr Van Courtlandt - who bears a slight resemblance to the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch and to whom my 3x great-uncle John Forgie (1799-1884) was very grateful. In Bytown on the 28th July 1846, the Dr performed a caeserean section and saved the life of John's third child, Eliza - who received the middle name of "Van Cortland" in acknowledgement of the Dr's achievement. Unfortunately, Mrs Forgie (Mary Craig) did not survive but Eliza lived a long life, married and had a family of 7 children. She died in Winnipeg in 1934.

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