Sir Charles Tupper was a politician who thought like a doctor


Janet and Jock Murray at Ottawa House

Sir Charles Tupper may have served many years as a prominent Canadian politician, but according to his biographers, Janet and Jock Murray, he thought and acted more like a doctor.

“Tupper, we argued in our book, wasn’t really a politician, he was a surgeon,” Jock Murray said during a talk on August 16 at The Ottawa House Museum, part of a summer series of events honouring Tupper on the 100th anniversary of his death.

“Surgeons…decide what needs to be done and they do it,” he added.

And one of the things that Tupper decided needed to be done was the introduction of free public education for all children when he was serving as Premier of Nova Scotia in 1865.  According to the Murrays, Tupper had a broad concept of health. He believed, for example, that a better-educated population would be a healthier one, but free public education wasn’t a popular idea back then.

“His own [Conservative] party didn’t want it,” Jock Murray said. “The opposition certainly didn’t want it. The taxpayers didn’t want it — they didn’t want to pay for the education of all these other children — and the rich and prominent certainly didn’t support it. He didn’t care; he thought it was good; he brought it in.”

The Murrays’ book, Sir Charles Tupper: Fighting Doctor to Father of Confederation, credits Tupper with many other achievements. For example, it was Tupper who convened the Charlottetown Conference in 1864 that eventually led to Confederation. And along with Sir John A. Macdonald, Tupper pushed hard for a national railway system.

Janet Murray said that when she read John A. Macdonald’s papers in the archives, she realized that Tupper doesn’t get the credit he deserves.

“I have nothing against Macdonald, but he always gets kind of the lead, he was the first prime minister, he was responsible for Confederation and so on,” she said adding, however, that when she read Macdonald’s letters asking again and again for Tupper’s advice, she realized how Sir John A’s many successes came from taking that advice.

Tupper the doctor

The Murrays pointed out that Tupper received his education from the University of Edinburgh where the medical school was considered the best in the world.

After graduating in 1843, Tupper spent 13 years practising as a family doctor and surgeon in a wide area around Amherst.

“He was very popular as a physician,” Jock Murray said and that popularity generated many stories.

“One of them was, they could always tell when Dr. Tupper went out on his house calls because they’d get up the next morning and their horse was gone, but a strange one was in its place because he covered a wide area. What he would do is just go into the nearest farm, take their horse and change as he kept riding because a house call in those days often took days.”

Ottawa House as summer home


Tupper as prime minister, 1896

When asked why Tupper might have chosen Ottawa House as his summer home, Jock Murray pointed out that Tupper’s mother had been born in Parrsboro.

Janet Murray said they had also been wondering why else Sir Charles might have chosen the area as they approached Ottawa House in their car.

Suddenly, we came up over that crest of the hill and saw this incredible, I mean magnificent view, and we both said, ‘Ah, that’s why.'”


Janet Murray graduated in philosophy from Mount Saint Vincent University and holds a Diploma in Journalism from the Halifax School of Journalism. She served as the Nova Scotia President of the Canadian Consumers Association and for three terms as Chair of the Board of Governors of Mount Saint Vincent University. She has researched history projects on women in medicine and women in the Second World War.

Jock Murray is a neurologist and former Dean of Medicine at Dalhousie University. He is an expert on the care and treatment of multiple sclerosis. He has had many leading roles in medical and history organizations in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, the Order of Nova Scotia and a member of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

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