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American Medical Biographies/Workman, Joseph

Workman, Joseph (1805–1894)

Joseph Workman, Canadian alienist, was born in Lisburn, Ireland, May 26, 1805, and died in Toronto April 15, 1894, at the age of 89 years. He came to Canada from Ireland in 1829, and graduated from McGill College in 1835. In 1836 he removed to Toronto and engaged in business, but returned to the practice of medicine ten years later. For some years he filled the chairs of materia medica and obstetrics in Rolph's Medical School and became favorably known as an able physician. In 1853, he accepted temporary charge of the Toronto Asylum, at the personal solicitation of Dr. Rolph and his appointment was made permanent in April 1854. He remained in office for twenty-two years, resigning in 1875. He was markedly successful as a superintendent and soon became known as the most note-worthy of Canadian alienists. Much that is best in the present system of care of the insane in Canada may be traced to his influence. Possessed of much energy and executive ability, Dr. Workman, during his management of the Toronto Asylum, introduced many improvements, one of the first of which was a reconstruction of the drainage. On assuming charge he had found 347 patients in residence, many of whom had frequent attacks of erysipelas, diarrhea and dysentery. Setting to work to investigate the cause, he soon found that the whole space beneath the basement was a foul and enormous cesspool. When this was emptied it was found that, while the basement drains and main sewer were admirably constructed, by some oversight no connection had been made between them, with the result that nearly four years' accumulation of filth had collected there. When this condition was remedied there ensiled a marked improvement in the general health of the household.

After his resignation of office, Dr. Workman spent the remainder of his life in Toronto. He was an accomplished linguist, and during his last years found his favorite occupation in the translation of articles, generally relating to psychiatry, for various medical periodicals. These translations possess a strong individuality, Dr. Workman's style of writing being always pungent, clear and flowing.

Although as a young man an ardent politician, he was never a believer in the so-called political methods which time after time in many asylums have caused the sacrifice of the interests of the insane to the demands of the political exigency. He steadfastly resisted any attempts to convert the asylum into a machine to satisfy the demands of political office-seekers, and would willingly have sacrificed his position rather than wink at the perpetration of a wrong. When, after twenty-two years of faithful service, he began to chafe in official harness and longed for rest, the decision to retire once made was soon carried into practice. There was nothing to put in order—the institution was in excellent condition; the running gear well oiled; harmony in every department, and an esprit de corps among the officials that argued well for the comfort of a successor.

For many years he was much criticised by the legal fraternity and press for his theories in regard to "insanity and crime," as he fearlessly maintained the medical view of responsibility in mental disease. In the courtroom, as a witness and medical expert, it was soon learned that he could not only enforce respect when under examination, but could also cover with confusion any facetious attempts to divert him from his fixed purpose. Gifted with an excellent command of language, a wit as keen as a Damascus blade, a perfect grasp of man's mental attitude, and a profound knowledge of science, it can easily be understood why he was facile princeps among witnesses.

His contributions to alienistic literature have been many. In Europe his name was well known, and he was made an honorary member of medico-psychological societies in Britain and in Italy.

In 1835 he married Elizabeth Wassridge, a native of Sheffield, England, and they had six children.

Institutional Care of the Insane in the U. S. and Canada, Henry M. Hurd, 1917.
Cyclop. Can. Biog., G. M. Rose, Toronto, 1888.