Anderson Ruffin Abbott was free born to Wilson Ruffin Abbott and Ellen Toyer, in Toronto, Canada on the 7th of April 1837. Two years before Anderson’s birth, the Abbott’s moved to Mobile, Alabama and opened a general grocery store, but left Alabama and abandoned their store in 1834, after receiving a warning that their store was to be pillaged. They settled briefly in New York, until racial tensions forced them to relocate to Upper Toronto, Canada in 1835. Wilson Abbott began to purchase real estate in and around Toronto. He owned 48 properties by 1871. The Abbott’s became very wealthy and prominent black family in Toronto . Wilson Abbott also became active in politics.
Anderson’s family wealth allowed him access to the best education. He attended both private and public schools including William King’s school in the black settlement of Buxton, near Chatham. He was an honor student at Toronto Academy, he later moved to Oberlin, Ohio and attended Oberlin College in the United states. Anderson Returned to Toronto, Canada, in 1857 he graduated from the Toronto School of Medicine at the age twenty. After graduating he studied for four years under Alexander Thomas Augusta, a black U.S. -born doctor who was then working in Toronto. In 1861, at the age twenty-four, Anderson received his license to practice medicine from the Medical Board of Upper Canada, becoming the first black Canadian-born doctor.
In February of 1863, during the United States Civil War, Dr. Abbott applied for a commission as an assistant surgeon in the Union Army but his offer was evidently not accepted. That April he reapplied as a “Medical Cadet” in the newly-formed U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), and was finally accepted as a civilian surgeon under contract. He served in several hospital’s in Washington, D.C. from June 1863 to August 1865, one being the Contraband Hospital which became Freedmen’s Hospital and later became part of Howard University.
In 1863 he petitioned United States 16th President Abraham Lincoln and on September 2, 1863 Dr. Abbott joined the United States Army as an assistant Surgeon, he was assigned to administer a hospital in Arlington, Virginia. Dr. Abbott was one of thirteen black surgeons to serve in the Civil War that fostered a friendly relationship with Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Abbott was on of several doctors in attendance when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865. Following Lincoln assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln the widow of the President, later presented Dr. Abbott with the plaid shawl that Lincoln had worn to his 1861 inauguration in appreciation for his attempt to save the President’s life.
In 1866 Dr. Abbott resigned from service at the Arlington hospital in Virginia and returned to Toronto, Canada. The following year he attended primary medical classes at the University of Toronto. While he did not graduate, in 1871 he opened his own medical practice and on August 9, 1871, he married Mary Ann Casey, the 18-year-old daughter of a successful black barber. The couple moved to Chatham, Ontario where he resumed his medical practice and the couple eventually had three daughters and two sons.
Dr. Abbott like his father became prominent in Chatham. He was appointed coroner of Kent County in 1874 and by 1878 he was the president of both the Chatham Medical Society and the Chatham Literary and Debating Society. Dr. Abbott fought against racially segregated schools in Canada.
Dr. Abbott returned to the United States in 1894 where he accepted a position as surgeon-in-chief at provident Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, the first black owned hospital in the United States. He became the hospital’s medical superintendent in 1896, but resigned the following year. He again returned to Canada and resumed his private practice in Toronto.
At the turn of the century he became embroiled in the debate between W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington over social change. Siding with Du Bois, Dr. Abbott believed that Black access to higher education was essential and should not be compromised. Believing that blacks would be culturally assimilated, Dr. Abbott wrote:
“It is just as natural for two races living together on the same soil to blend as it is for the waters of two river tributaries to mingle.” With Canada’s black population on the decline, he thought this was especially true in his own country and wrote “by the process of absorption and expatriation the color line will eventually fade out in Canada.”
Abbott died in 1913, at the age of 76, in the Toronto home of his son-in-law Frederick Langdon Hubbard. He is buried in the Toronto Necropolis.