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Queen's University
 

Queen's Encyclopedia

Litchfield, John Palmer (1808-1868)

John Palmer Litchfield is one of the most intriguing figures in Queen's early history. He was an amiable and intelligent con-man who passed himself off on three continents as a medical expert and ended his career as a professor at Queen's and a superintendent of the asylum, which was the precursor of the Kingston Psychiatric Hospital.

The son of a poor surgeon in England, Litchfield worked as a journalist before emigrating to Australia in 1839. Despite his lack of medical credentials, he set himself up as a physician and soon was appointed an inspector of hospitals. When his lack of training came to light, he fled the post to start a private “lunatic asylum,” an undertaking which then required no qualifications. This venture ended in bankruptcy and a brief sojourn in debtor's prison, after which he returned briefly to England to work in an asylum there.

Litchfield emigrated to Boston in 1853 and then set his sights on Canada, where he edited a small Montreal newspaper.

In Canada, Litchfield gained the confidence of the rising Attorney-General of Canada West, John A. Macdonald, who helped him obtain the post of superintendent of Kingston's Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane in 1855. Queen's medical school was starting at the same time, and so he also obtained for himself the position of Professor of Midwifery and State and Forensic Medicine.

But Queen's officials soon discovered his lack of qualifications - he finally conceded under questioning that he had never even attended a birth - and forced him from the post in 1857. However, he retained charge of the asylum and even managed to recover the position of Professor of State and Forensic Medicine after obtaining an MD from Queen's in 1862.

Kingston, Ontario, Canada. K7L 3N6. 613.533.2000