John Palmer Litchfield

John Palmer Litchfield, MD
1808 - 1868
Obstetrics & Gynaecology 1855 - 1860

JOHN LITCHFIELD, born in London England in 1808, was the son of John Charles Litchfield, a none-to-well-off surgeon practising in the Haymarket. As a result his sons did not complete their education and had to make their way in life as occasion offered.

In his twenties John Litchfield became a free-lance writer and enjoyed some success as a journalist. His publications appeared in the Monthly Chronicle, the New Monthly Magazine and in Bentley's Miscellany edited by Charles Dickens. Prior to the Medical Council of Great Britain, established by the Medical Act of 1858, it was common practice for practitioners in London to offer lecture courses to assist the unregulated studies of medical students. Unqualified lecturers were common. John Litchfield claimed to have given lectures on diseases of the skin and to have served as a physician in the Infirmary for the Diseases of the Skin. However, these activities have never been confirmed.

At the age of 30, Litchfield and his family emigrated to Adelaide, South Australia in 1839, where they lived for the next two years. He had modest success as a journalist but came to grief because of his efforts to pose as a physician. He established himself as a consulting physician in Adelaide and was appointed by the governor as inspector of hospitals for the province. Initially he was successful in the latter role addressing a number of public health issues and was actively involved in the building of a new hospital in Adelaide. His next venture was to establish a private asylum for treatment of the insane. However, the Governor could not confirm Litchfield's claim to have a diploma from Heidelberg and being financially over extended, Litchfield ended up in debtors' prison.

He returned to England in 1841 and was a correspondent on the continent for a number of London publications for the next five years. There is some evidence that as a keen young journalist with an interest in medicine, he attended lectures on diseases of the skin at the Hospital St. Louis in Paris. In 1845 he was appointed medical superintendent at the Walton Lunatic Asylum near Liverpool and remained there for eight years. There, he likely learned what little there was then to know about psychiatry and the administration of asylums.

Litchfield emigrated to the United States in 1853 at the age of 45 where again he took up his literary career, initially as editor of the International journal in Boston and subsequently as editor of the Montreal Weekly Pilot writing several articles on public health topics. Because of his literary and cultural interests, he established many contacts in Montreal.

Litchfield applied for and was appointed superintendent of the Asylum for the Criminally Insane at Rockwood in Kingston in 1855. This appointment was obtained likely because of his experience in Walton asylum in England and unconfirmed testimonials from practitioners in United States and England. Litchfield continued in this position until his death in 1868. The inspector of asylums, reporting in the British American Journal in 1860 and again in 1862, commanded Litchfield for the admirable manner in which he managed the insane division of the provincial penitentiary.

Litchfield's association with the medical department at Queen's began in 1855 when he was appointed professor of forensic and state medicine. In the next session, when the lecturer in midwifery left Kingston, Litchfield volunteered to teach the course and thus became the professor of midwifery. However, as the medical school became more established and wanted other provinces and United Kingdom schools to recognize its degrees, those who held professorships had to be academically above reproach. Litchfield's lack of medical qualifications came to light. In June 1857, Litchfield submitted a memorandum to the trustees of the university confirming that he did not practice midwifery and had never attended a confinement. But he requested he be granted an honorary degree in recognition of the lectures given. This request was not considered.

As university policies were developed, Litchfield submitted his resignation as professor of midwifery. But in 1862 Litchfield was examined by his faculty colleagues and was granted a Queen's MD. He continued as professor of forensic and state medicine and the institutes of medicine (physiology) until his retirement in 1866 when he became an accepted member of the Queen's academic scene and one of the students' favourite professors.

Litchfield was remembered as a kind gentleman who took an active interest in church and cultural affairs. He died December 18, 1868 at the age of 60 following a lingering illness.

Litchfield and his wife Louisa had one daughter who married Dunbar Browne of Kingston.