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Thomas W. Johnston, Sarnia’s pioneer physician, was a native of Ireland, and was born in Omagh, County of Tyrone, on the 24th of March, 1813. He was the son of Hugh Johnston, merchant and contractor, of the same place. His early studies were prosecuted at the High School in Omagh, under the direction of Sir William Smith. At the age of fifteen he was apprenticed to John Hamilton, a surgeon of great local celebrity; and the nature of the duties imposed upon the young apprentice will be inferred from an extract from the indenture executed by the parties at the time, the original copy being now in the possession of Dr. T. G. Johnston, of Sarnia, eldest son of the subject of this sketch. By the terms of this paper the apprentice agrees: His master faithfully to serve, his secrets to keep, his lawful commandments gladly to do. He shall do no damage to his said master nor see it to be done of others, but shall to his
power let, or faithfully give warning to his said master of the same. He shall not commit fornication, nor contract matrimony within the said term. Hurt to his said master he shall not do, cause, or procure to be done of others. He shall not play at cards, dice tables, or any other unlawful games, whereby his said master may have loss, with his own or other goods during said term, without license of his said master. He shall neither buy nor sell, he shall not use or
haunt taverns, ale houses or play houses, nor absent himself from his said master’s service day or night unlawfully, but in all things, as an honest and faithful apprentice, he shall behave himself
toward his master and all his, during his said term; and the said master his said apprentice, in the same art which he useth, by the best ways and means that he can, shall teach and instruct, or cause to be taught and instructed with due correction.”
In 1832 young Johnston came to the United States, bringing with him from Dr. Hamilton the best testimonials in regard to the “regularity of his habits,” and “his excellent knowledge of his profession.” The certificate of Dr. Hamilton speaks highly of the skill of his pupil in “the practice and compounding departments of the Castlederg and Killeter Dispensary,” and bears date April 11, 1832. With his father and family, Dr. Johnston resided a short time at Niagara, then Upper Canada; subsequently he removed with the family to the neighborhood of London, where he became the owner of a large tract of land, which he afterward exchanged for land on the River St. Clair.
In 1834 Dr. Johnston went to New Orleans, where he prosecuted his medical studies under Dr. Stone and at the Medical College of Louisiana. As evidence of the attainments he had made in medical science, he received in 1837 a finely executed diploma on parchment, from the above college, bearing the signatures of the seven members of the Faculty, and also that of E. D. White, Governor of the State of Louisiana. Suffering an attack of yellow fever in New Orleans, he, on his recovery in 1838, returned to the banks of the St. Clair, stopping first at Moore, where he was engaged for several years in the practice of medicine. Subsequently, Sarnia having become a village and an important business centre, he removed there, and continued in the practice of a profession which he adorned, and in which he was for many years almost without a rival.
In 1848, in pursuance of an Act of the Canadian Parliament to license practitioners in Physic and Surgery, His Excellency Lord Elgin signed a license authorizing Dr. Johnston ” to practise physic, surgery, medicine and midwifery, within that part of the Province of Canada, formerly constituting Upper Canada.” This was also in pursuance of certificate and recommendation from the Medical Board of that part of the Province composing the Western District.
As early as 1840 license had also been granted Dr. Johnston to practice physic and surgery in the State of Michigan. The authorization is in the form of a document bearing date May of that year, and signed by the officers of the Michigan State Medical Society: Z. Pitcher, President; Adrian R. Perry and G. B. Russell, Censors; and J. B. Scovel, Secretary.
In August, 1841, Dr. Johnston was appointed by Lord Sydenham to the post of Surgeon to the Third Regiment of Kent Militia, the commission bearing date, Kingston, August 19. In 1857 he received from Governor Head, under date of Toronto, March 10, an appointment as Surgeon to the Fourth Battalion of Lambton Militia, taking rank and precedence in said battalion from the 15th of November, 1856, and in the militia of the Province from the 17th of August, 1841.”
For a long period of years Dr. Johnston devoted himself faithfully to the duties of his profession in Sarnia and in parts adjacent, and for a considerable period he was the chief, if not the only, practitioner in the place. His calls were frequent and his rides extensive; but he was ever attentive to the cry of distress, and had little apparent concern about the ability of the suffering to render compensation for his services. He was a successful practitioner, and popular, both as a physician and a man. Of genial temperament and social habits, he was a great favorite with the public. He was the first Mayor of Sarnia ever elected by the people, and for three successive years he was chosen by acclamation to discharge the duties of that office. It was during his incumbency that the place was visited by the Prince of Wales, and on that memorable occasion he did the honors of the chief magistrate quite to the gratification of Her Majesty’s loyal subjects in Sarnia.
Dr. Johnston was appointed Registrar of the County of Lambton in 1866, an office which he held until his death, which occurred at Sarnia, March 12, 1876.
Dr. Johnston was married to Grace, youngest daughter of the late Thomas Sutherland, of Edinburgh, in October, 1847. By this estimable woman he had seven children, four sons and three daughters; all save one son survive him. His eldest son, Thomas G. Johnston, inherits the father’s taste for his chosen profession, and is now in the enjoyment of a large practice as a physician in Sarnia, having qualified himself for his duties by a course of study at McGill College, Montreal.