The “Remarkable” Career of Dr. Clarence Webster

Anyone who dips into the history of the Tantramar region, will soon encounter the long shadow of Dr. John Clarence Webster. Even after the passage of a half century, his writing and research remain among the most authoritative interpretations of local history. Who was this man? Why was he remarkable?

Born on Oct. 21, 1863 in Shediac, the son of James Webster and Roslin Elizabeth Chapman; he was to die there, eighty-six years later, on March 16, 1950. He graduated from Mount Allison University with a BA degree in 1882. Forsaking arts for the time being, he decided to study medicine. Accepted by Edinburgh University; Webster graduated with a BM (Bachelor of Medicine) and MS (Master in Surgery) in 1888. His MD was awarded shortly afterward.

Following studies in Berlin, and a period of surgical practice in Edinburgh, Webster decided to make the latter city his home. Almost at once, he gained a reputation in his chosen specialty, obstetrics and gynecology; producing four major books and numerous articles between 1890 and 1896. Unfortunately, ill health forced him to reduce this hectic pace and he returned to Canada. New appointments followed at the Royal Victoria Hospital and McGill medical faculty in Montreal. During this period, Dr. Webster assisted with the formation of the Jubilee Nursing Scheme; later to become the Victorian Order of Nurses. However, his international fame was such, that in late 1899, a call from the prestigious Rush Medical School in Chicago lured him to the United States. Here he remained for twenty years, engaged in teaching and research at Rush; and in surgery at the Chicago Presbyterian Hospital, where he was chief obstetrician and gynecologist.

On the personal side, in 1899, Webster married Alice Kessler Lusk (1880–1953), daughter of a well known New York physician, Dr. William Lusk and his wife Jean Myer Lusk. Unhappily, their marriage was to be stalked by a series of tragedies The eldest son, John C. Webster Jr., (1901–1931), an avid amateur pilot, died in a plane crash near Montreal. Their daughter, Janet Webster (1900–1944), married a French artist, Camille Roche, and was living in France during the Second World War. Interned for allegedly assisting the resistance movement; she was to die in Ravensbruck concentration camp, Germany.

Their second son, Dr. William Lusk Webster (1903–1975), a physicist, and graduate of Victoria College, University of Toronto; obtained his doctorate at Trinity College, Cambridge University, in 1926. From his university days onward he was associated with famous scientists including Nobel prize winners Lord Rutherford (1871–1937) and Sir James Chadwick (1891–1974). During the war he completed several secret assignments for the British government. He was also associated with the Manhattan Project responsible for the development of the atomic bomb. Of Dr. William Webster it was said: the horror of the bomb haunted him for the rest of his life. Dr. Regis Brun, Université de Moncton, has recently completed a biographical study of the equally remarkable career of Dr. William Webster.

In 1920, Dr. Clarence Webster decided to take early retirement and move to Shediac. There was much more to this decision than a change of scenery or a return home. Interested in local history from boyhood, he began collecting maps, documents, artifacts and memorabilia relating to the Isthmus of Chignecto. Soon books, monographs and collections of primary documents, almost without number, began to appear.

Independently wealthy, and well travelled, the Websters visited universities and museums; archives and galleries; rare book and art dealers throughout North America and Europe; seeking old maps, documents, artifacts and objects d’art. As before, honors and recognition were soon forthcoming. Named in 1922 to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board; he served a term as chair, remaining an active member until 1949. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1924; he contributed frequently to its deliberations. Together with his wife he edited a volume for the Champlain Society.

In 1935 Dr. Webster was made a commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George and awarded the Order of Merit by King George V. Five honorary degrees came his way; including an LLD, conferred by his alma mater, Mount Allison University. To understand these and many other honors it must be noted that Webster was not content merely to collect artifacts and write history; he was also to make history as an activist and lobbyist for his cause.

It all began with the restoration of Fort Beauséjour and its designation as a national historic park. Were it not for Webster’s intervention and subsequent donation of land, the National Park might not have been established. The Beauséjour Museum, in which a major part of the Webster collection is still housed, was also his idea, and he played a key role in its construction.

Throughout, Dr. Webster lobbied for the marking of historic sites and had a hand in their designation in all three Maritime Provinces. Both the Public Archives of Nova Scotia and the New Brunswick Museum were recipients of his philanthropy. The latter institution, in addition to housing an important part of his collection also had the support of his wife, Alice Lusk Webster. She founded the Fine Arts Department; created an endowment and donated her personal collection of regional and oriental art.

In a moment of self-confession, Webster wrote in his aptly titled autobiography, These Crowded Years: I have found as keen a satisfaction in teaching, medical research and in the triumphs of the operating room, as in studying ancient documents, marking historic sites, or developing historical museums. These latter interests have carried me through the perils of old age and saved me from the horrors of doddering senility…

During Webster’s Crowded Years numerous awards and distinctions were his; but one that would have pleased him greatly was bestowed after his death. In 1969, the Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names officially approved the designation of an unnamed mountain in Northesk Parish, Northumberland County, as Mount Webster. While many other individuals have been so honored; few were more deserving than Shediac’s remarkable physician and historian, Dr. John Clarence Webster.

I am indebted to the following for their assistance in writing this Flashback: Juliette McLeod, Fort Beauséjour National Historic Site; Donna Beal, Mount Allison Archives; Ray Dixon, Sackville and Dr. Regis Brun, Université de Moncton.