Biography John McCrae
- Time Period1872 - 1918
McCrae was born in McCrae House in Guelph, Ontario, the grandson of Scottish immigrants. He attended the Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute and became a member of the Guelph militia regiment.
McCrae worked on his B.A. at the University of Toronto in 189293. He took a year off his studies at the university due to recurring problems with asthma.
He was a member of the Toronto militia, The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, while studying at the University of Toronto, during which time he was promoted to Captain and commanded the company.
Among his papers in the John McCrae House in Guelph is a letter McCrae wrote on July 18, 1893 to Laura Kains while he trained as an artilleryman at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario. "...I have a manservant .. Quite a nobby place it is, in fact .. My windows look right out across the bay, and are just near the waters edge; there is a good deal of shipping at present in the port; and the river looks very pretty."
He was a resident master in English and Mathematics in 1894 at the OAC in Guelph.
He returned to the University of Toronto and completed his B.A. McCrae later studied medicine on a scholarship at the University of Toronto. While attending the university he joined the Zeta Psi Fraternity (Theta Xi chapter; class of 1894) and published his first poems.
While in medical school, he tutored other students to help pay his tuition. Two of his students were among the first women doctors in Ontario.
He completed a medical residency at the Robert Garrett Hospital, a children's convalescent home in Baltimore, Maryland.
In 1902, he was appointed resident pathologist at Montreal General Hospital and later also became assistant pathologist to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. In 1904, he was appointed an associate in medicine at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Later that year, he went to England where he studied for several months and became a member of the Royal College of Physicians.
In 1905, he set up his own practice although he continued to work and lecture at several hospitals. He was appointed pathologist to the Montreal Foundling and Baby Hospital in 1905. In 1908, he was appointed physician to the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Infectious Diseases.
In 1910, he accompanied Lord Grey, the Governor General of Canada, on a canoe trip to Hudson Bay to serve as expedition physician.
McCrae served in the artillery during the Second Boer War, and upon his return was appointed professor of pathology at the University of Vermont, where he taught until 1911; he also taught at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.
When the United Kingdom declared war on Germany at the start of World War I, Canada, as a Dominion within the British Empire, declared war as well. McCrae was appointed as a field surgeon in the Canadian artillery and was in charge of a field hospital during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. McCrae's friend and former student, Lt. Alexis Helmer, was killed in the battle, and his burial inspired the poem, In Flanders Fields, which was written on May 3, 1915 and first published in the magazine Punch.
From June 1, 1915 McCrae was ordered away from the artillery to set up No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Dannes-Camiers near Boulogne-sur-Mer, northern France. C.L.C. Allinson reported that McCrae "most unmilitarily told what he thought of being transferred to the medicals and being pulled away from his beloved guns. His last words to me were: 'Allinson, all the goddam doctors in the world will not win this bloody war: what we need is more and more fighting men.'"
'In Flanders Fields' appeared anonymously in Punch on December 8, 1915, but in the index to that year McCrae was named as the author. The verses swiftly became one of the most popular poems of the war, used in countless fund-raising campaigns and frequently translated (a Latin version begins In agro belgico...). 'In Flanders Fields' was also extensively printed in the United States, which was contemplating joining the war, alongside a 'reply' by R. W. Lillard, ("...Fear not that you have died for naught, / The torch ye threw to us we caught...").
For eight months the hospital operated in Durbar tents (donated by the Begum of Bhopal and shipped from India), but after suffering storms, floods and frosts it was moved in February 1916 into the old Jesuit College in Boulogne-sur-Mer.
McCrae, now "a household name, albeit a frequently misspelt one", regarded his sudden fame with some amusement, wishing that "they would get to printing 'In F.F.' correctly: it never is nowadays"; but (writes his biographer) "he was satisfied if the poem enabled men to see where their duty lay."
On January 28, 1918, while still commanding No 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) at Boulogne, McCrae died of pneumonia. He was buried with full honours in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission section of Wimereux Cemetery, just a couple of kilometres up the coast from Boulogne. McCrae's horse, "Bonfire", led the procession, his master's riding boots reversed in the stirrups. McCrae's gravestone is placed flat, as are all the others, because of the sandy soil.