Dr. Jonathan Barber’s Unlikely Odyssey

In 1825, eleven years before Dr. Jonathan Barber settled his family in Montreal, he published in Pennsylvania a booklet entitled Exercises in Reading and Recitation, now on display at Riversdale House Museum in Maryland.  It was a marker of Dr. Barber’s move from medicine into elocution and oratory–fields then in vogue at schools and universities..

The booklet marked one of the many turning points in Dr. Barber’s life. His was a long odyssey, which took him from a medical practice in England and the U.S., to teaching elocution at Harvard, lecturing in phrenology in the U.S. and Montreal, a medical and homeopathic practice in Montreal, a stint as professor of oratory at McGill College, and finally retirement to the village of Knowlton in the Eastern Townships of rural Quebec.

Jonathan Barber, son of a pharmacist, was born in 1784 in Scarborough, England, practiced medicine there and in London as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, and immigrated to the U. S. in 1820 “for health reasons, having been impaired by devotion to his profession” according to his obituary in the Waterloo Advertiser when he died at Knowlton in 1864 at the age of 80.

As a young man, Jonathan Barber achieved stature as a “man of great elocutionary powers,” according to Robert Leader in the 1875 booklet published in England entitled Reminiscences of Old Sheffield.

After leaving England in 1820, he practiced medicine for several years in Washington, following which he changed his focus to literary pursuits, especially literature and elocution. He taught at Yale, and then in 1829-30 became an instructor at Harvard, teaching in the Department of Rhetoric and Oratory until the close of 1834.

A analysis of his efforts  appeared in 1932 in  The North American Review, published in Boston. Referring to Barber’s A Grammar of Elocution, published in 1830, the reviewer notes,

…he has performed a service hitherto unattempted, and by many persons deemed impossible–that of presenting to the world a work on the important science of delivery, which is philosophical in its character, and intelligible and lucid in its details.  For the philosophical character of the present work, the author acknowledges himself indebted to Dr. [James] Rush [of Philadelphia]; but the praise of having made a practical application of Dr. Rush’s theory to the art of elocution, is certainly his own.

His stay at Harvard could not have been the happiest of times.  A 2003 “Harvard Magazine.com” article notes that Barber initiated students into the mysteries of rhetorical gesture with a bamboo cage apparatus that he devised.  The article contains this quote from Prof. Michael West’s Transcendental Wordplay:

The student stood inside four equal vertical hoops, each angled at 45 degrees from the others.  Around these meridians ran three horizontal great circles, so seven hoops encircled a student.  Constituting a hollow glove over six feet in diameter, the hoops divided its surface into 32 different apertures.

The student could thrust his hands into various openings in front of him.  The postures so defined corresponded to ‘15 fundamental or systematic positions’ that the orator’s arms might assume while speaking, each associated by Barber with a specific emotion…To master eloquence, all Harvard students were marched into this bathosphere and required to declaim under his watchful eye, thrusting their hands through designated slats at appropriate points in the text.

Concludes West, “More beloved by its inventor that by its victims, the bamboo sphere was found one morning dangling from a barber pole.”

Andrew Peabody says, in in the online Harvard Reminiscences, “He was probably an accomplished trainer of vocal chords.  A man of respectable character, zealous in his work, and disposed to hold pleasant relations with his pupils.  But he was pompous and fantastic in mien, speech and manners.”

After leaving Harvard in 1834, Dr. Barber began to lecture on phrenology, a distant precursor to the neurosciences. It was developed in Europe in the early 19th century by Dr. Franz Joseph Gall and then by his pupil Dr. Johann Spurzheim.

Phrenologists suggested that the brain consists of separate faculties, each located in a particular part of the brain, and each controlling an aspect of character and personality. Dr. Gall postulated that the brain was made up of 27 of these individual “organs,” and that by measuring and analyzing the bumps and indentations of the skull, a person’s strengths and weaknesses–and thus personality and behaviour–could be predicted. It claimed value in such areas as choosing a marriage partner, making career choices, hiring employees and improved child-rearing.

Phrenology became popular with the emerging middle classes in the U. S. and Canada as a route to self-improvement–a more egalitarian approach to a person’s worth and possible advancement than existed within the traditionally rigid European class system. The leading American phrenologist Orson Fowler, active in phrenology’s heyday from the 1820s into the 1850s, taught that a person’s defects, identified through  phrenological analysis, could be rectified through exercising the appropriate brain faculty, and the improvement would show up on subsequent physical examination of the head.

Family life

In 1834, Dr. Barber’s family life started to get complicated.  His first wife presumably had died some years before, and he was left with two daughters, Mary and Emma.  His second wife was widow Martha Hemming Dunkin, and they had a daughter, Susan Fitch Barber, born in 1831.

Martha Barber also had a son, Christopher Dunkin, from her earlier marriage.  He was a highly intelligent young man who studied classics and mathematics at London and Glasgow universities but never graduated, and he came to live with the Barber family in the U.S. at the age of 19.  He studied for a time at Harvard and, though not having been graduated with a degree, was nevertheless awarded an honorary degree and appointed tutor in Greek at Harvard for the year 1834-35.  However, that experiment ended poorly; in May 1834, his freshman class provoked what became known as the “Dunkin Rebellion,” in which classroom furniture and windows were broken, followed by disruptions in morning and evening prayers. Dunkin’s contract was not renewed.

In August 1835, Christopher Dunkin married Dr. Barber’s eldest daughter Mary —she had been born in 1813, according to her birth certificate now at the Brome County Historical Society, to “Jonathan Barber, Surgeon, and his wife Elizabeth” at Scarborough, England.

North to Montreal

The Barber and Dunkin family moved to Montreal, probably in 1836, where Dr. Barber had contacts that included the family of Charles Bancroft, who was a member of the influential Bancroft family of Boston and business partner of the  important Montreal merchant Horatio Gates.  Both Bancroft and Gates had died of strokes in 1834, but their young families remained in Montreal.

Dr. Barber lost no time in involving himself in Montreal life.  A reporter for The Montreal Transcript of Sept. 6, 1836, wrote,

“We yesterday visited the new gaol, in company with Dr. Barbour [sic], who proposes in a few days to give a series of lectures on Phrenology…The object of the visit was, by a practical examination of the heads of most of its inmates, to decide upon the character of the individuals….Though no believer in the science of Phrenology, we were certainly much struck with the correct and pointed decisions of Dr. Barbour, at least in twenty-five out of forty examinations, wherein he distinguished between the bold and determined offender and the novice in crime; the ruffian and the man of gentle disposition; the abandoned wreck, destitute of religious principles, and he who maintains his belief in Christian revelation.  Several of the definitions were remarkably correct, more particularly two.”

In the Transcript of November 17, 1836, there was an advertisement detailing Dr. Barber’s forthcoming lectures at the Methodist Chapel on physical, moral and intellectual education and Phrenology.

It appears that he charged a basic amount for a series of lectures, and any surplus was for the benefit of the House of Industry (La Minerve, January 5, 1837).The same day in early 1837,  the Transcript noted, “During the period that Dr. Barber has been among us, he has acquired a popularity far beyond that of any other lecturer who has proceded him in this city….His addresses at various meetings and more particularly his lectures on Shakespeare’s writings and drama, have met with a most favourable reception.”

The Transcript of March 11, 1837, notes that a guarantee fund was subscribed by 53 persons to keep Dr. Barber as a lecturer in Montreal on Elocution.  One of the class participants was John Redpath, by then an established building contractor, who wrote that year to Mr. M. Donaldson in New York,

“Dr. Barber…is lecturing on elocution and by attending them I have discovered that I am quite a novice in the service of speaking or writing correctly, although I daresay you will think it did not require any great stretch of intellect to make this discovery.”

The Rebellion of 1837 in Lower Canada disrupted Dr. Barber’s speaking schedules, and in the Transcript of December 28, 1837, it is noted discreetly that public lectures by Christopher Dunkin and Dr. Barber, “deferred on account of the general excitement,” would begin in January 1838.

Subsequently, Dr. Barber went back to England.  When he returned in 1842, he was versed in homeopathy, a holistic system that seeks to stimulate the body’s natural ability to heal itself. Early proponents viewed homeopathy as a gentle alternative to then-prevalent bleeding and purging procedures. Dr. Barber maintained a homeopathic practice for some years: in Lovell’s Directories, he is listed as “doctor” from 1847 to 1852, and as “homeopathist” until 1859-60. In the 1851 Montreal Directory he is listed under two categories: physician & surgeon, and homeopathic medicine.

Willing and knowledgeable to talk on many subjects, Dr. Barber was a frequent lecturer at the Mechanics’ Institute of Montreal. In the winter of 1845-46, he gave a talk entitled, “Best Means of Preserving Health of Large Towns.” In 1850 he gave a talk on “Oratory with Reminiscences of English Speeches,” and in 1853 spoke on “The Philosophy of France.”  He and his son-in-law Christopher Dunkin were made honorary members of the Mechanics’ Institute in 1848, “in consideration of their valuable services to the Institute as lecturers during several sessions” and were later both were awarded life memberships.

While winding down his medical practices, Dr. Barber began again to teach elocution, and in the McGill University Archives he is listed as Professor of Oratory in the years 1859-64. Dr. J. D. Borthwick notes in his Montreal History and Gazetteer to the year 1892, “The writer well remembers when associated with him in the old [High School Department of McGill College], and Barber’s method of Elocution, then in vogue, was one of the most interesting lessons the youth of Montreal learned.”

The family for some 20 years lived on Little St. James Street in Montreal.  Christopher Dunkin became a successful lawyer in Montreal, then a politician based in the Eastern Townships, and later a judge.  He settled in Knowlton where he built a handsome house called “Lakeside,” and established a large farm on the shores of Brome Lake—now the site of the Knowlton Golf Club and the Brome Lake Boating Club. Mr. and Mrs. Dunkin seemed to have provided a gracious home for the Barber family, and for receiving guests, including a visit by Prince Arthur in 1870, as well as a refuge and home for a procession of ailing relatives.

Dr. Barber’s second daughter Emma Gertrude devoted her life to good works. She started a Home for Girls in Montreal, first in her own home where women in domestic service could go on their day off so they wouldn’t be in the streets and couldn’t be tempted to drink, and could receive religious education and sewing courses.  This evolved into the Sheltering Home of Montreal in 1866 and later into the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

In 1872, Emma Barber with Mrs. Samuel W. Foster, wife of the sheriff of Knowlton, were conducting a Sunday School for farmers’ children in a little schoolhouse two miles from the village—probably the Tibbits Hill schoolhouse.  They also started a sewing class on Saturday afternoons to teach the children needlework.  Both were active during the establishment of the Distributing Home in Knowlton for English orphans, who were placed mostly on farms in the area—a project supported by Christopher Dunkin.

Dr. Barber’s third daughter, Susan Fitch Barber,  married Henry Bancroft, son of Montreal merchant Charles Bancroft. He became a lawyer, retired early because of ill health, and died at Christopher Dunkin’s Knowlton home at age 45, leaving three children, one of whom was named Christopher Dunkin Bancroft.  Susan Barber Bancroft later married George Rice of Montreal.

Dr. Jonathan Barber gave an address at the 50th wedding anniversary of Dr. and Mrs. S. S. Foster in Knowlton in 1863. He died the following year at the Knowlton home of Christopher Dunkin, and is buried, alongside Dunkin and Bancroft family members, in Mount Royal Cemetery.

More than 30 years later, In “Stories of 50 Years Ago” in  Montreal’s  The Daily Witness of January 11, 1896, James Mathewson notes:  “The late Dr. Barber and afterwards his clever son-in-law Christopher Dunkin about 1836, gave the most interesting lectures on phrenology ever given.  Hs collection of skulls and casts and charts was very extensive. Both were finished speakers and both thoroughly understood the subject.”

(Acknowledgements:  Arlene Royea of the Brome County Historical Society, Knowlton,  was of great help in the research for this article.  Assistance was  also kindly provided by the Rev. Harry Kuntz, Montreal; Dr. Ann Wass, Riversdale House Museum; Myriam Cloutier, Mount Royal Cemetery; Jennie Ferris, McGill University Archives; and Judy Coy, San Anselmo Museum.  John Blundell, M.D., suggested several revisions to an early draft of the article.)

(Adapted from an article in Quebec Heritage News, March-April 2009)

Atwater Library Archives.
Brome County Historical Society Archives
McGill University Archives, RR_01_19.04
Abbott-Smith, G. and J. Bancroft, Charles Bancroft of Montreal 1843
Borthwick, J. D., Montreal History and Gazetteer to 1892
Brome County Historical Society, Yesterdays of Brome County
Brome County Historical Society, Along the Old Roads
Day, Mrs. C. M., History of the Eastern Townships, 1869
Drake, Francis S., Dictionary of American Biography, 1872
Straum, M. S., Labelling People: French Scholars on Society, Race and Empire, 1815-1848. McGill-Queen’s Press, 2003

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