A look at the lasting legacy of Canada’s first black doctor, William Wright
A brilliant and mysterious figure, William Wright is known to be the first black doctor in Canada.
Author Frank Mackey says Wright is best known for breaking the color barrier by seeming to slip seamlessly into the elite white world of medicine at McGill University in Montreal.
“I think at that time there was this idea that it just wasn’t done,” Mackey said.
Wright was born in Quebec in 1827, a time when slavery was still legal in Canada.
Born of a black father and a white mother, Wright stood out, not only for the color of his skin, but also for his intelligence.
“He apprentices to this doctor who teaches at McGill and begins his medical studies there,” Mackey said.
Wright would go on to work as a surgeon, obstetrician and chair of the pharmacology department – something unheard of for a black man in the 19th century.
“It was just like, ‘Well no, you’re not going to let a nigger be a doctor or something,'” Mackey said.
In 1882 Wright’s students actually complained that he was not keeping up with developments in medicine and demanded that he be fired.
He eventually quit, and Mackey says there’s no evidence to prove his quitting had anything to do with race.
Nonetheless, historian Dorothy Williams points out that after the American Civil War there was a lot of backlash on college campuses.
“What happened at McGill when students rejected Dr. Wright actually happened in the United States, all over America,” Williams said. “Gifted teachers who taught for five or ten years were removed from their posts in the same way.”
Wright never hid his race. In 1861 the census taker identified him as a colored person and in the 1901 census he was identified as black.
However, her great-great-great-niece, Sandra Stock, says she was unaware of her color.
She says she had heard stories about her over the years, but it was only after taking a DNA test which revealed she had black ancestry that she realized it traced back to Wright .
“This [race] didn’t seem to matter to him,” Stock said. “He said who he was and so on and I thought, ‘Well, good for him because he might have passed for being completely white” or whatever and he doesn’t. He was completely truthful.”
Despite the end of his medical career, Mackey and Stock say they both believe Wright’s lasting legacy will be for the barriers he broke down for black people in the medical field.