Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia's first Black doctor treated hundreds of patients after Halifax Explosion

In the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion, Nova Scotia's first Black physician worked day and night to help the wounded. His heroism has largely been overlooked and playwright David Woods is determined to change that.

Dr. Clement Ligoure's heroism in 1917 has never been celebrated, says playwright

Dr. Clement Ligoure treated hundreds of patients after the Halifax Explosion devastated parts of the city in December 1917. (Queen’s University Archives, V28-P-301. C. C. Ligoure)

In the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion, Nova Scotia's first Black physician worked day and night to help the wounded.

Dr. Clement Ligoure treated up to 180 patients a day at his private hospital on North Street that had survived the blast, said playwright David Woods.

"That hospital, which he called the Amanda Hospital, became a dressing station for people who were refused from the overcrowded hospitals and did not have life-threatening injuries," Woods told CBC Radio's Information Morning recently. 

Ligoure's heroism during those crucial weeks in December 1917 has largely been overlooked — and Woods is determined to change that. 

In 2015, he started working on a play, Extraordinary Acts, that's centred around five Black characters and their experiences during the explosion. 

"Our people have lived here from the founding of the city and almost consistently when the stories are told of the histories, a lot of what our contributions [are] have been left out," said Woods.

He'd hoped to stage a reading of Extraordinary Acts Sunday, on the 103rd anniversary of the tragedy, but COVID-19 cancelled those plans for now. 

'I worked steadily both night and day'

Ligoure gave an account to the Halifax Relief Commission about the relentless work that was required to care for people with the most serious injuries, including severed limbs.

"In spite of the warning of a second explosion, I worked steadily till 8 p.m.," Ligoure said in his testimony to the commission. "Seven people spent the night in my office, laid upon blankets. On December 7th, 8th and 9th, I worked steadily both night and day, doing outside work at night."

The Halifax Explosion happened a year after Ligoure arrived in the city in 1916. He was originally from Trinidad and spent time in New York City before coming to Halifax in the hopes of joining the war effort, but he was refused entry.

Woods said Ligoure went on to help recruit members for the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canada's only all-Black battalion. 

"He was so many things," said Woods. "He took over the editing and the publication of the Atlantic Advocate so he was actually the publisher of the very first Black newspaper in Nova Scotia."

Like Woods, Edward Thomas has been fascinated with Ligoure's life and has pored over archival documents trying to learn more. 

David Woods hopes to stage a full production of his play in December 2021. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

"What is remarkable is that in the six years that he lived after he graduated from medical school, he just had this enormous impact," Thomas said. 

Ligoure graduated from Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., in 1916, two years before the university's notorious ban on Black medical students.

Thomas is completing his PhD in cultural studies at Queen's and is shining a light on contributions alumni like Ligoure made without receiving the recognition they deserved. 

"As a cohort, these roughly 60 Black medical students had a rather extraordinary historical footprint and they were part of a network. They remained in touch with each other," he said. 

Little information about his death

While Queen's decision to ban Black students from the medical program beginning in 1918 drew international attention at the time, Thomas said there was little examination of the impact it had.

In fact, until Thomas began doing his research a few years ago, the ban was still officially on the books at the university even though the practice informally ended in 1965.

The popular narrative was that Black medical students were kicked out of the university because patients refused to be treated by them, said Thomas. 

He said the documents he found prove that wasn't true. 

The former site of Dr. Clement Ligoure's Amanda Private Hospital, 5812 North Street, Halifax. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

"When I dug into the archive, I found out that Black medical students were actually delivering babies through the flu epidemic after the ban had been enforced throughout the town," he said.

Ligoure died in 1922 at the age of 37, but Woods and Thomas said there's very little information about how he died.

"I tried to find his records at the archives and in the vital statistics, and there's no record of him, no mention in the newspaper," Woods said. 

Hopes to stage play in 2021

Woods hopes to share Extraordinary Acts with the public in December 2021 to coincide with the 104th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion. 

The play also tells the stories of H.D. Nicholas, a semi-fictionalized porter and jazz musician; Rev. Capt. William White, a preacher and military officer with the No. 2 Construction Battalion; James Johnston, the first Nova Scotia-born Black lawyer; and painter Edith Brown-MacDonald from Africville.

"All of these people were doing extraordinary things that was completely unknown by the general public 100 years ago, and so it's very important to correct the record and to allow their lives to finally live, actually, in our minds and consciousness, and their voices to be heard," he said. 

Woods hopes to raise enough money to stage a full production of Extraordinary Acts next year. 

Four women walk from Africville following the Halifax Explosion. (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 2451)

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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With files from CBC Radio's Information Morning