Dr. R. M. Bucke – A Remarkable Life

Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke

Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke was the first Medical Superintendent of the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He lasted only one year in that capacity (1876-1877) before moving onto the London Asylum. Richard Buckle led a truly remarkable life and was considered “one of the foremost men in medical circles in Canada.”

The following biography appeared in the 1917 book “The Institutional Care Of The Insane In The United States And Canada”. (Transcription provided for easier reading.)


“On the 19th of February, 1902, Richard Maurice Bucke, M.D., died under extremely sad circumstances. About 11 o’clock on the previous evening, while apparently in the best of health, he went upon the veranda of his residence, as was his custom, for a short walk before retiring. His family heard him fall, and going…”

“to his assistance, found him unconscious. He never rallied, and died in a few hours.”

“He was born March 18, 1837 at Methwald, Suffolk, England. In 1838 his family emigrated to Canada and settled on a farm in London Township, County of Middlesex. Here he remained until he was 16 years of age.”

“He went to the United States, and in his desire to see the world accepted any chance that came, working on farms and on steamboats, even as a deck hand, so long as he gained a new experience. He first drifted South, by way of the Mississippi River. In the spring of 1856 he crossed the Western plains with a cattle train, acting in the capacity of cook to the party. At Salt Lake City he joined a small party setting out for California – a hazardous undertaking for that time, particularly as the company had determined to walk the entire distance, although carrying their supplies in wagons. The inevitable happened, and in a desperate fight with Indians three of the little band were killed, the wagons and supplies were captured, and the survivors were forced to attempt the remaining 300 miles without resources of any kind.”

“A pitiful story it was, and of the fifteen who set out only four reached their destination, and these were almost starved when the journey was over. So great was their need of food at times that they were forced to feed on seeds and small frogs. When they reached the Humboldt River they were almost dead from thirst.”

“He next appeared in California, and during the winter of 1859 – 1860 he was again the victim of tragic circumstances, he being the sole survivor of a mining party. He was badly frozen while in the mountains, and had it not been for his wonderful vitality and indomitable will he would never have reached a settlement or survived the long and terrible illness that followed his exposure. As the injuries received on the memorable trip across the mountains made walking difficult he returned to Canada, via the Isthmus of Panama, in 1860, and commenced the study of medicine, graduating with high honors in McGill University, Montreal, in the spring of 1864, and winning a prize. After his graduation he spent 18 or 20 months in the London and Paris hospitals, and on his return went to California for eight months as a witness in a mine suit.”

“He settled in Sarnia, Ont., where he practiced for ten years, when he as appointed medical superintendent of the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane, and after a year’s service was transferred to the London Asylum, where her remained until his death, just 25 years later.”

“On his return from California he married Miss M. Gurd, who survives him.”

“Dr. Bucke was president of the American Medico-Psychological Association in 1898, and was regarded as one of the foremost men in medical circles in Canada.”

“As an alienist he was eminent, and his name is associated with the names of such reformers as Joseph Workman and others. He accepted non-restraint as something better than a fad, and in his institution the non-restraint system was first adopted (1882), this lead being promptly followed by Kingston and Toronto. It marked the beginning of an era of better things for the insane of Ontario, and Dr. Bucke’s energy was a stimulus to many of the juniors in the service. His views on the abuses of alcohol in the treatment of insanity, and his investigations in gynecological surgery among the insane are well known. He believed that a large proportion of…”

“insane women suffered from uterine and ovarian diseases which could be benefited by operation. The improved physical health resulting implied a better state of mentality. That this was good common sense all agree, the point at issue being the ability, or want of ability, on the part of the majority of specialists to decide which cases should be operated on.”

“He was loved by his patients and employees and had a deep sympathy for the old and infirm; his warm heart won him life-long friends wherever he went. His library was one of the most extensive in Canada, and he was an untiring student, reading widely and deeply, particularly along the lines suggested by his remarkable books on ‘Man’s Moral Nature’ and ‘Cosmic Consciousness’.”

“In person he was of striking appearance, of splendid physique and carrying the stamp of intellectual force in his face. He dressed much after the style of Walt Whitman, and would be marked in any assemblage as a man of originality. In daily life he was simple, direct and honest and was a great lover of nature. The happiest days of each year were those spent at his summer…”

“retreat at Gloucester Pool, in Muskoka. He was deeply mourned by a large circle of friends, who loved him for his sturdy honesty, his warm heart, his intellectual force, but most of all for his noble qualities as a man.”

To read Dr. Bucke’s report about the Hamilton Asylum, see “First Annual Report of the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane” at:


If you are interested in the history of the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane, be sure to check out my other posts on the topic by navigating to the “Categories” section on this site.

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