Dr. Michael Lavell was born in 1825 in Quebec City, to a family of mixed Irish and French descent. The family moved to Toronto when he was quite young. The family were members of the Methodist Church; two of his brothers studied theology and became ministers, and Michael worked for the Christian Guardian under Dr. Egerton Ryerson. He later studied medicine in Toronto, and after graduation eventually set up practice in Peterborough.
In 1858, he moved to Kingston, where he soon became a prominent member of the community. He was active in the political arena, supporting John A. Macdonald in the 1861 election. Soon after he received a commission (signed by John A. Macdonald) as “Surgeon” to the First Battalion of the Frontenac Militia, a post that opened many doors for him in local society.
Another appointment came in 1872, undoubtedly again as a reward for his support of Macdonald. This time he was offerred a position as surgeon of the Kingston Penitentiary.
His medical career flourished and he was instrumental in facilitating the admission of women into medical school at Queen’s University. Later, when this initiative failed, he became first President and then Dean of the new Women’s Medical College and taught courses in obstetrics and women’s and children’s diseases.
Dr Lavell finally resigned from Queen’s, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Kingston Women’s Medical College in 1885 at the age of 59 when yet again benefiting from John A. Macdonald’s patronage, he was appointed warden of Kingston Penitentiary at a generous salary. He continued in this post until his retirement in 1894.
The episode of most historical note in Lavell’s life, however, was when, in October 1885, his friend Macdonald sent him on a secret mission to Regina. He was to meet undercover and assess the sanity of the Métis leader Louis Riel who had been tried for treason after the 1885 Rebellion. The medical commission also included Dr August Jukes of the North-West Mounted Police, and Dr. François-Xavier Valade, a French Canadian doctor with a practice in Ottawa who was a friend of the Minister of the Militia, Sir Adolphe Caron. Lavell and Valade were sent on their way with the same instructions in an identical formal letter from Macdonald, but Lavell also received a private letter, more frank in tone, that made it clear that his task was to allay the doubts over the adequacy of the trial by talking to Riel undercover and any persons he chose that were in charge at the gaol “so soon as you are convinced that Riel knows right from wrong and is an accountable being”.
The final reports were received November 9th by Macdonald, but they did not agree, so they were suppressed and the final decision to hang Riel was made by the Cabinet in spite of some opposition from Quebec Ministers.
Queen’s University Archives holds the papers of Dr. Michael Lavell in Location # 2999.