John McCrae, physician, poet, soldier (born at Guelph, Ont 30 Nov 1872; died at Boulogne, France, 28 Jan 1918). John McCrae was the author of "In Flanders Fields," the most famous verse of the First World War and one of the most influential war poems of all time.

McCrae graduated with a medical degree from the University of Toronto in 1898 and worked briefly as an intern with the brilliant William Osler at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. In 1899 McCrae was granted a fellowship in pathology at McGill University but got permission to postpone his studies in order to fight in the South African War. He distinguished himself as a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Artillery.

After he returned to Montreal in 1901, McCrae served as resident pathologist at the Montreal General Hospital in 1902 and then as associate in medicine at the Royal Victoria Hospital in 1904, as physician at the Alexandra Hospital in 1908, and as lecturer in medicine at McGill in 1909. Described by a colleague as "the most talented physician of his generation," he co-wrote A text-book of pathology for students of medicine in 1912. McCrae occasionally published poems in the University Magazine, many of which had death as their theme.

McCrae in the Canadian Expeditionary Force

On the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, McCrae enlisted as a major and brigade surgeon of the 1st Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. After fighting at Neuve-Chapelle, France, his brigade was moved in April 1915 to Belgium, to a quiet section in the Ypres salient, which was held by Canadian infantry. On 22 April the Germans made a devastating and unexpected attack on the salient (the second Battle of Ypres), using deadly chlorine gas for the first time. Half of the brigade died in the battle.

McCrae wrote his poem "In Flanders Fields" while he was waiting in his dugout for the wounded to arrive. It was inspired particularly by the death of his close friend Alexis Helmer on 2 May. After it was published in the London magazine Punch in December 1915, it quickly became the most popular English-language poem of the war.

In June 1915 an exhausted McCrae left the artillery brigade to become lieutenant-colonel in charge of medicine at No. 3 Canadian General Hospital. He insisted on living in a tent like his comrades at the front and was deeply distressed by the carnage of the war. On 24 Jan 1918 he was appointed consulting physician to the 1st British army, the first Canadian to be so honoured. McCrae, who suffered from asthma all his life, contracted pneumonia, complicated by meningitis, and died four days later. He was buried in the cemetery at Wimereux, France.

Excerpts from the letters written to his mother during the South African War were published in the Evening Mercury (Guelph, Ont). His poems originally appeared in literary magazines and a collection was issued posthumously as In Flanders fields and other poems (1919). The house where John McCrae was born is a national historic site and has been converted into a museum.

See also In Flanders Fields Music.