Sign of the Eye: The Story of Dr. Cadwell

Banner image is of King St looking east from west  of Leader Lane, 1847.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

The history of ophthalmology in Toronto is quite an interesting one, if not a particularly long one.  As with a number of other medical specialists in the early 19th century, there weren’t a whole lot of ophthalmologists – or oculists, as they were then known – kicking about town.  Which is to say, there were none.

Of course, this didn’t mean the Torontonian of yore was completely without help when suffering some ocular issue.  After all, it’s quite likely that at least one of the city’s half-dozen general practitioners would’ve had some trick up his sleeve for addressing whatever the problem was.  But frankly it probably wouldn’t have been very effective if there were anything seriously wrong with one’s eyes.  That’s because, for the most part, eye treatments often boiled down to the catch-all remedy of the day – bleeding and/or blistering the general area.  And, as you might expect, this was of little benefit to the eyes (i.e. none.)  Unless of course you were just looking to be distracted from whatever was actually troubling you.

Cursory notes on the morbid eye Robert Hull 1840
So your choice was between bleeding and mercury.  Terrific. From Cursory Notes On the Morbid Eye, by Robert Hull, 1840.

A better option was the practice of using ointments for eye irritations and infections.  An added bonus to this course of action is that a body did not have to visit a doctor for relief, as many of these concoctions were readily available at local druggists.

Genuine Liquid Composition July 17 1834 Canadian Freeman
“Rest assured, this is a genuine liquid composition – none of that solid matter parading as a liquid.” Interesting that the font used for “Sore Eyes” is almost an irritant in itself. From the Canadian Freeman, July 17th, 1834.

Of course, there are a number of eye problems which cannot be treated by simply prying apart your eyelids and squirting a dose of potion into them. Problems like cataracts, crossed eyes and tumours require serious treatment by a doctor with some expertise.  And so, in the early 19th century, this meant visiting an oculist.  Or – what was more likely – seeking the services of a visiting oculist.

Because oculism was a specialized practice, those trained could make a good living by travelling and treating those who would not otherwise have access to such services.  Thus, it became quite common for an oculist to establish a home base in a city and then strike out on a tour of neighbouring towns when local business became quiet.  Once they’d completed a tour of duty, they’d return to their home base and see if anyone new had been stricken.

It is in this way that Frederick Alexander Cadwell, Toronto’s first resident oculist, came to call in 1849.

F A Cadwell Treatise on the Eye and Ear 1859
It appears his jacket has been drawn on.  Dr. Frederick A Cadwell, from his Treatise on the Eye and Ear, 1859.

Born in New York City in 1817/18, Cadwell studied at, and graduated from, the Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia in 1837.  Though trained as a medical doctor and surgeon, he would find his passion in treating the eyes and ears. (This, in the parlance of the time, made him both an oculist and an auror.)  Following his graduation, Cadwell returned to New York and established his own practice.  During this period he would also marry a woman named Louisa (maiden name sadly unknown) and, in 1846, welcome a daughter – Adeline Augusta.

But following the oculist’s custom, he soon packed up his young family and took to the road.  It was on one of these jaunts, in 1847, that he crossed the border and found himself in Montreal, Quebec and decided to stay awhile:

Cadwell Montreal Transcript May 20 1847
Though it’s a bit hard to make out, Cadwell boasts that he’s already treated “Sixteen Hundred persons residing in different parts of the Canadian province -“.  That’s 3,200 eyeballs and ears.  From the Montreal Transcript, May 20 1847.

Of course, it wouldn’t be long before Cadwell was on the move once more.  And so it was that on a June day in 1849 the family (which now included a baby boy, Charles Frederick) first arrived in Toronto.

Naturally Cadwell’s first order of business upon arrival was to find temporary lodgings at one of the local hotels – happily, something this city was not short on.  Though there were a number to choose from, he would settle on the Phoenix House at Church and Colborne.  Owned by a Black Canadian named B. R. Snow, it was considered one of the best spots in the city and so was quite popular with travelers.

Russell Phoenix Church and Colborne 1912 TPL
Here we see the Phoenix House as it appeared in the mid-1850s – now reborn as Russell’s Hotel.  Painting, 1912, courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Because the Phoenix House is not particularly well-remembered or documented in our city’s history, let’s take a moment to see what it offered a visiting professional like Cadwell:

Phoenix Hotel ad The Globe Nov 4 1848
“Come for the internal arrangements and stay for  viands from the ever fully supplied LARDER.”  From The Globe, November 4th, 1848.

Having thus settled where they’d stay, Cadwell could now scour the city for a fitting office for his practice. … Okay, I say “scour” but really, there wouldn’t have been much to his search.  Anyone visiting Toronto in 1849 would have easily found that there was only one place to be:

King St 1851 TCD
Lest there be any doubt.  From the 1850-51 Toronto City Directory.

Luckily for Cadwell, a dentist named Charles Rahn had recently vacated a prime address on King St W, near Bay.  (Rahn himself would actually move to nearby Melinda St, which we explored last year.)  Securing the office, Cadwell was now all set to perform a familiar chore – visiting the local newspaper offices to place advertisements for his services.

As would become his custom, he had the printers insert an eye at the top of his notice:

Cadwell comes to town June 20 1849 The Globe cropped
Cadwell comes to town, from The Globe June 20 1849.

Over the years, and at the hands of various printers, Cadwell’s “eye” would change.  But it would never be as well rendered as it was in the above ad.  More often than not, it would end up looking like this example from the British Colonist:

Cadwell British Colonist Feb 3 1852 (2)
You’ll note that” Dr. C” kept a large number of artificial eyes on hand.  Also that he could insert them “without the least pain.”  That’s the sort of positive statement that somehow brings only the negative to mind.  From The British Colonist, Feb 3rd, 1852.

Anyhow …

Once Cadwell became better settled in the city, he’d move his family out of the Phoenix and into a proper home on Adelaide St W.  Though no address was ever given, we do know that he lived between Bay and Yonge because Cadwell (like many other professionals of the period) advertised the fact. … These were different times, people.

Cadwell 1850-1 TCD (2)
“By all means, please intrude upon my privacy some evening.”  From the 1850-51 Toronto City Directory.

Sadly, I’ve yet to find a good photo which documents this stretch of Adelaide at the time.  But here’s a bird’s eye view of the area, circa 1860:

Toronto Downtown, circa 1860 Looking north west from building on King St, west of Toronto St TPL Hewitt's was on ADelaide bet Yonge and Bay
The building with the painted signage is Hewitt’s, which sat on Adelaide between Yonge and Bay.  And so it is likely that one of the neighbouring roofs was Cadwell’s.  Photo circa 1860, courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

This is the same stretch of Adelaide today, looking east from Bay to Yonge.

Adelaide looking east from Bay - north side
The north side of Adelaide St W., looking east from Bay.

Because there’s no record of which side of the block Cadwell lived on, here’s the south side for good measure:

Adelaide looking east from Bay - south side
Adelaide St. W., south side, looking east from Bay.

These first few years in Toronto seems to have been fairly happy ones for Cadwell.  His wife, Louisa, gave birth to another daughter – Fanny Maria – in 1851, his practice was thriving and he enjoyed a solid reputation in the community.  But as the years ticked past, not all would be rosy in Cadwell’s world.  Oh sure, there were still many professional highs, but there would also be a good many personal lows.

On April 11th, 1852, little Fanny Maria died at just eight months.  A second son, Abner Mellen, born in 1853 would die before his second birthday.  And then, cruelly just three months later, Cadwell and his wife would also lose their two eldest children  – Adeline and Charles:

Cadwell children Nov 30 1854 p. 3
The darkness of the copy somehow seems fitting.  From The Globe, November 30th, 1854.

Were that not misery enough, there would also be a couple of occasions when Cadwell stood witness to terrible events in his adopted city.

Here we have an account of the night he went to the theatre and answered one of those “Is there a doctor in the house?” calls. (Fair warning: This is pretty grim and doesn’t end well):

Fire Lyceum (2)
“A recommendation” that wire guards be installed on the stoves doesn’t seem near strong enough.  From The Globe, December 29th, 1855.

Because I’ve got it handy, here’s the Lyceum as it would’ve appeared at the time:

Royal Lyceum Theatre, circa 1858, King St. W., south side, between Bay & York Sts TPL
The Lyceum, which sat on King between York and Bay, would itself eventually fall to fire in 1883. Image circa 1858, courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

A couple of years later, Cadwell would find his services required after a nightmare played out on the Great Western Railway:

Frightful Accident Sarnia Observer Mar 19 1857
From the Sarnia Observer, Mar 19th, 1857.

The horrific accident occurred when the Desjardins Canal bridge in Hamilton collapsed just as the Toronto train was crossing it.  The tragedy would claim 59 lives:

Cadwell Great Western Railway 1857 (4)
From Full Details of the Railway Disaster of the 12th of March, 1857, at the Desjardin Canal on the Line of the Great Western Railway, 1857.

Among those killed when the train plummeted into the canal was J. Bradfield – a patient of Cadwell’s.  As the over-whelmed authorities attempted to confirm victims’ identities, the grim job of identifying Bradfield and his wife fell to the good doctor:

Train Crash Sarnia Observer Mar 19 1857
From the Sarnia Observer, Mar 19 1857.

… So yes, I imagine there were a good many dark days in the young doctor’s life.  Yet, somehow, against this backdrop of misery, both Cadwell and his wife Louisa endured.

By this period, from the mid-to late 1850s, Cadwell was working out of an office on King St E, near Leader Lane:

King St E south side from Leader Lane 1846 TPL
Cadwell’s second office was located on this stretch of King St E., somewhere just beyond where those folks have gathered by the lamppost.  Illustration is of the south side of King St E., looking east from just west of Leader Lane, 1846.  Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Which today looks like this:

Looking east toward Leader Lane on King St E
It’s all a facade, baby.  Whatever structure rises on the south side of King, it will be wearing the skin of the former residents.

With an unfailing focus on building his clientele and furthering his reputation, Cadwell would even publish a book on his work. With a pithiness typical of the time, he titled it “Treatise on the eye and ear: rules for the preservation and restoration of sight; deafness, its causes and progress explained; new discoveries in treatment illustrated with numerous cases.” And let me tell you, if you enjoy a frank discussion of eye diseases and surgeries, then this is the book for you.

It also features an array of not-too traumatizing illustrations such as these:

One Eye Injured
Take away the fact that this is how your eyeballs are connected, and it’s almost the type of pleasing design you find in Victorian stained glass.  From Treatise on the Eye and Ear, 1854

And lest anyone have trouble identifying the characteristics of crossed eyes, this illustration would help set them straight.  (Sorry.)

Cross Eye
From Treatise on the Eye and Ear, 1854.

Of course, we mustn’t forget that Cadwell was also an auror.  Though his “treatise” is marked by an emphasis on ocular issues, he was careful to include a good number of distressing ear anecdotes and illustrations as well.

Diseases of the Ear
I’m no auror but this doesn’t seem advisable.  That thing looks like it can only do harm.  From Treatise on the Eye and Ear, 1854.

His book also featured a number of testimonials from former patients – many of which vouch for his skill in curing chronic eye inflammation and the removal of cataracts.  But some of the letters also attest to his ability to cure deafness.  And frankly, some come off as, well, a mite miraculous:

Cadwell Deafness Cured Treatise (2)

After all, this was at a time when Cadwell himself often advertised this forerunner to the modern hearing aid:

Cadwell Ear Cornet Treatise (2)
Poor guy doesn’t look particularly happy about having to use this thing. It’s also questionable whether or not that’s his own hand inserting it. From Treatise on the Eye and Ear, 1854.

Though I suppose it is possible Cadwell found some success treating deafness with a little contraption he’d come up with.  It looked like this:

Contraption for deafness

Should you have any trouble envisioning how such a, er, thing could be beneficial, I’m pleased to offer Cadwell’s own description of it:

No explanation for contraption
A great many words which say so little.  But I love his honesty – “even medical men will be flummoxed and unable to guess how it works.”  From Treatise on the Eye and Ear, 1854.

Alas, with the close of the decade, Cadwell would decide that it was time to bid Toronto farewell and pursue new opportunities elsewhere.  Packing up his home and practice, he and Louisa would head back to the U.S. and start anew in Chicago:

Chicago Tribune Dec 4 1860
From the Chicago Tribune, Dec 4th, 1860.

But after just a few years in the Windy City, Cadwell would feel the need to move on once more.  In 1863, he and Louisa would move back to his hometown of New York City.

Unfortunately, for Cadwell, this move would bring yet another personal blow.  One which would play out in both American and Canadian newspapers:

Blackmail The Globe July 7 1863 pg 3
Cadwell involved in a case of blackmail?  Good grief, whatever could’ve have happened now … From The Globe July 7, 1863.

Though Cadwell had left the city a few years before, the doctor was still well remembered here, and his name considered a big enough draw to sell newspapers.  But here’s the thing – the Cadwell central this drama was not the doctor. It was his wife, Louisa:

High Life in NY Globe June 26 1863
Leaving aside the clear-as-mud situation for a moment, I have to say it’s rather sweet that the American-born Cadwell was considered a “Canadian celebrity.”  From The Globe. June 26th, 1863.

Though contemporary newspaper accounts of the case are occasionally hard to follow, I think I’ve got a handle on its ins and outs now.  So here’s the situation, as I understand it, in a nutshell:

During one of Cadwell’s extended trips out of town, his wife Louisa took up with a very wealthy, New York gentleman.  This fellow suggested to Louisa that she leave her husband – and to help move things along he offered to pay for her divorce.  Well, Louisa apparently thought this was a pretty good idea and a lawyer was hired to begin the proceedings.  Cadwell, who was still out of town tending eyes and ears, was served with the divorce papers and became, as you might imagine, quite upset.  Hurrying back to New York, he accused the mysterious gentleman of having an “improper intimacy” with Louisa.  Which, you know, given the circumstances does not seem all that unlikely.  Anyhow, according to the New York Times of Oct 7, 1863, our Cadwell then “threatened to enforce against him the utmost penalties of the law.”  Which at the time, amounted to arresting the rich Casanova and suing him for damages.

Well, the prospect of such actions apparently frightened the guy sufficiently and he asked a mutual acquaintance of the two – the delightfully named Rollin A. Goodenough – to help the two men come to some agreement.  Preferably one that would keep him from being arrested and any hint of a scandal out of the papers.  And so Goodenough approached Cadwell with some offer, Cadwell acquiesced and the divorce proceedings were stopped.  And so it seemed that some semblance of peace had been returned to the Cadwell household.

But, as it turned out, Louisa’s wealthy gentleman was not yet ready to give her up.  According to the same New York Times article, the fellow continued to shell out a lot of dough for her.

“He settled her board bills at the hotels, sent her to Saratoga Springs to recuperate her health, presented her with a gold watch and expensive dresses, paid her carriage hire, and gave her money, wines, brandies, fruits, &c.”

… You know it’s serious when there’s fruit involved.

He also arranged for her to travel out west to quietly (i.e. without anyone in N.Y. noticing) obtain the divorce they’d bungled in New York.  And this time it seems she was successful.

In returning to New York, Louisa no doubt was looking forward to settling into the kind of decadent life to which she’d now become accustomed.  Unfortunately, however, it seems fate had a different plan for her.   While she’d been away, her dashing Lothario had up and died.  And, as terrible a blow as that must’ve been for her, she soon felt even worse when she found out that he hadn’t left her a cent.  … And so we come the “blackmail” bit.

Louisa approached the dead man’s lawyers asking for money, but was continuously refused.  But then, somehow or other, she discovered that her fellow had left two payments of $5,000 with Goodenough “for the settlement of some private affair.” Well, considering herself a “private affair” of sorts, she became fixed on the idea that this money must’ve been meant for her.  When Goodenough failed to agree, she made a couple of threats to have him arrested and wound up taking him to court to get the money.  And so the whole sorry, sordid mess came to light and was played out publicly in the newspapers.

In the end, the Court decided that Goodenough had not acted improperly and that Louisa Cadwell had no claim on the money.  Adding insult to injury, she was then ordered to pay him $10.

Of course, by this time, our Dr. Cadwell had long given up his fight for her and they were completely disassociated –  though both would continue to live in New York City for several years:

Cadwell New York City Directory 1864-5 (2)
From the 1864-65 New York City Directory.

Though Cadwell would continue with his practice and issue several new editions of his Treatise on the Eye and Ear, it appears his life after this episode became a good deal quieter – or, at least, so it seems from this great distance.

When next he turns up in the news, it’s 1873 and he is in London, Ontario and answering for the death of a patient following surgery:

The Globe May 5 1873
From The Globe, May 5th, 1873.

Specifically, it was Cadwell’s use of chloroform which appears to have done the poor man in.  But if this causes you to fear for our beleaguered doctor, worry not.  As the patient himself requested the chloroform, and a number of respected doctors attested to Cadwell’s expertise and good record, the matter was dropped and Cadwell emerged relatively unscathed.

Just the same, it’s a shame this isn’t more of a “good news” story – because, sadly,  this is the last trace I can find of Dr. Frederick Alexander Cadwell.  After this episode, he disappears into the sands of time.

But where Cadwell’s association with Toronto ends, another oculist’s tale begins…

A young doctor named Abner Mulholland Rosebrugh would set up his practice here in the early 1860s, just a few years after Cadwell’s departure.  And it would be this man who’d help bring oculism into the modern age.  We’ll meet him, along with some of the city’s early opticians, next time.  I hope you’ll join me.


9 thoughts on “Sign of the Eye: The Story of Dr. Cadwell

  1. When I saw this was about an oculist, I knew it was going to be good (though not so grisly as I was expecting, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. People poking around in eyeballs freaks me out). With a name like Cadwell, you’d think he’d be more of a jerk, and I know we don’t know what drove her to it, but his wife seems like more of a cad than him.
    I noticed that the nicest thing they could say about the poor girl who burned to death was that she was “interesting.” In that context, it seems like more of an insult than anything, like how calling someone “interesting looking” usually means they’re ugly.
    I laughed at ear cornet guy – you’re right, that doesn’t look like his arm! I’ll pass on the artificial eye insertion too; painless would definitely be a less suspicious way of phrasing it.So much hilarity inside this post, as usual. Beware of men bearing fruit, I guess.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So happy you enjoyed it! I thought of you as I was writing it and hoped you’d get a kick out of it. And I’m especially glad to hear it made you laugh. I was worried it might be too grim a tale, what with all the death.
      And I’m glad you caught that “interesting” bit. I had the same thought. Poor thing. You think they could’ve paid her a better compliment in tribute.
      Yeah, to be honest, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed in Mrs. Cadwell initially. But I imagine that after years of being dragged from town to town, left alone for long periods and losing all her children, it’s not too surprising she fell for someone who lavished attention and fruit on her. But yeesh – I wish she’d stopped short of chasing his money after he died.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I tend to find humour in inappropriate situations, so all the death wasn’t really a problem for me.
        I do kind of want to speculate more on the fruit. I wonder what kind of fruit it was. Sexy fruit like strawberries, or did he just try to woo her with a big old melon or something? I think it’d have to be some very special kind of fruit to make me have an affair. Like Thai pineapples or the amazing black strawberries that I had in Berlin years ago and can’t get out of my head. Or the punnet of cherries I ate on the beach in Nice on a warm summer’s day. Actually, yeah, fruit is definitely more likely to persuade me than wines or brandies (especially brandies, blech), though it’s still not as good as chocolate.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ha – “big old melon” made me laugh. And I think you’re right, there must’ve been at least one pineapple involved. Cherries also seem a good bet, as far as wooing-fruit goes. It certainly had to be more than the occasional basket of mealy apples.
        My god, I’d never even heard of black strawberries before this. I just looked them up – they’re beautiful. Was the flavour/sweetness much different?

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I don’t think the ones in Germany are officially black strawberries, they were just very very very dark red, so they appeared almost black. They were the sweetest most delicious strawberries I’ve ever had. They were so sweet they almost tasted artificial, but in a good way. They have these adorable little strawberry shaped kiosks in all the U-Bahn stations in Berlin during strawberry season where they sell them.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow – I’ve just discovered your blog and have spent the last 3 hours joyfully reading through your archives!
    What a wonderful writer and researcher you are! You really do bring the stories and characters from our city alive (cliché, I know, but it’s true…)
    I graduated from U of T in history and art history, and used to volunteer at the city’s historic houses. But alas, I do not work in these areas, so to stumble upon a wonderful resource to feed my passion for social history is so exciting! I loved this story of Dr. Caldwell, the oculist and aurer!
    Thank you!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for this lovely note – you’ve made my day! It’s a treat to hear that you also have a passion for our local history. And I’m so glad you enjoyed Dr. Caldwell. He’s one of my favourite characters too. Oh to have known his Toronto!


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