Secret Life of Canada

Meet Oronhyatekha, the Mohawk doctor who made history

Meet Dr. Oronhyatekha. A Mohawk doctor from Six Nations Reserve, "Dr. O" was one of the first Indigenous physicians in Canada. Baptised with the English name Peter Martin in 1841, this barrier-breaking man led a fascinating and influential life.
Dr. Oronhyatekha was a well-respected physician who served both Indigenous and non-Indigenous patients. The latter was unusual for the era. (Deseronto Archives)

Not every person worth remembering made it into the history books. Each month, the Secret Life of Canada shouts out a Canadian or Indigenous person that has had a lasting impact worth celebrating. These historical figures may not be on money or monuments but their legacies live on.

Oronhyatekha, or Burning Cloud as he was known in Mohawk, was a lifelong trailblazer.

Oronhyatekha grew up on Six Nations of the Grand River, attended a residential school and was baptised as Peter Martin in 1841. In his youth he trained to be a cobbler. Little did he know life had bigger plans for him.

After a chance encounter that changed his life, Oronhyatekha would go on to study at Oxford University and The University of Toronto. He eventually become the second Indigenous doctor in Canada. His deep commitment to his people, and all people, helped him to become a leader in many communities.

Here are five things we learned about Oronhyatekha, also nicknamed Dr. O.

1) The bumps on his head proved important to his future path

Before Oronhyatekha became a doctor he attended the Mohawk Institute, a residential school in Brantford, Ont., where he learned to read and write as well as the skills to become a cobbler.

When he was 14, an American phrenologist passing through the reserve examined his head and deemed him "educatable." While phrenology has been long since debunked, it was this chance meeting that would lead Oronhyatekha down the path to higher education.

2) He made an impression on the British Crown

During a visit to Six Nations in 1860 the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), Oronhyatekha delivered a welcome address. The Prince, as well as the Prince's physician, were so impressed they invited him to study at Oxford, an offer he accepted.

After doing well at Oxford he went on to study medicine at University of Toronto where he gained the nickname "Old Iron Teakettle" because no one could pronounce his name. He eventually became known as Dr. O.

A young Oronhyatekha delivered an address that impressed the Prince of Wales in 1860. (Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte )

3) He was the second Indigenous doctor in Canada

For many years it was thought that Dr. O was the first Indigenous physician in Canada. In 2012, it was revealed that he was in fact the second status Indigenous person to receive a medical degree. Peter Edmund Jones, a Mississauga of the Credit man, received his degree one year prior to Dr. O.

4) He commissioned a replica of the Coronation Chair

Dr. O travelled extensively and on one trip to Britain he became very interested in Queen Mary II's Coronation Chair, and was granted permission to commission a replica, which now lives at Casa Loma in Toronto.

Oronhyatekha collected over 800 artifacts in his lifetime. In 1902 he opened Oronhyatekha Historical Rooms and Library.

Words and names are scratched into the original coronation chair of Queen Mary II, located in Westminster Abbey in London. Oronhyatekha wanted these inscriptions copied into the replica he commissioned. (Frank Augstein/The Associated Press)

5) His legacy lives on through arts, culture, and scholarship

After his death in 1907 his collection was donated and became part of the Royal Ontario Museum's founding collection.

His legacy also lives on through the Dr. Oronhyatekha Memorial Scholarship Fund, which is dedicated to Indigenous students who are going into the medical field.

In 2018, London, Ont. city council voted unanimously to designate his Italianate style home at 172 Central Ave as a heritage site. 

(City of London report)

How to listen to The Secret Life of Canada on your phone or tablet