John McCrae, a Canadian doctor and teacher who is best known for his memorial poem “In Flanders Fields,” was born on November 30, 1872, in Guelph, Ontario. McCrae began writing poetry when he was a student at the Guelph Collegiate Institute and also showed an early interest in joining the military. At the age of fourteen, he joined the Highfield Cadet Corps and enlisted in a militia field battery three years later.
When he was sixteen, he graduated from the Guelph Collegiate Institute and won a scholarship to the University of Toronto, where he studied for three years. He was forced to take a year off due to severe asthma, a chronic illness he would struggle with for the rest of his life. McCrae taught English and mathematics at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph before returning to the University of Toronto in 1893. He graduated with his bachelor’s degree the following year and received a bachelor of medicine degree in 1898. While he studied to be a physician, he also continued writing poetry, publishing sixteen poems and a number of short stories in a variety of magazines.
With the onset of the South African War in October 1899, McCrae felt an obligation to serve in the armed forces. He sailed to Africa and spent a year there with an artillery battery from his hometown. However, McCrae was shocked by the inadequate treatment of the sick and injured soldiers on the battlefield, leading him to resign and cease his involvement with the military for several years.
Returning to his medical career, in 1901, McCrae dived into research work in pathology while also serving as resident assistant pathologist at Montreal General Hospital. After a quick succession of promotions, in 1904, he moved to England, where he studied and became a member of the Royal College of Physicians. In 1905, he set up his own practice while also lecturing in clinical medicine and pathology, attending medical conferences in Europe, and writing for medical journals and textbooks.
As the first shots of World War I were fired in the summer of 1914, Canada, as a member of the British Empire, became involved in the fight as well. McCrae was appointed brigade-surgeon to the First Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery.
In April 1915, McCrae was stationed in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium, in an area known as Flanders, during the bloody Second Battle of Ypres. In the midst of the tragic warfare, McCrae’s friend, twenty-two-year-old Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed by artillery fire and buried in a makeshift grave. The following day, McCrae, after seeing the field of makeshift graves blooming with wild poppies, wrote his famous poem “In Flanders Fields,” which would be the second-to-last poem he would ever write. It was published in England’s Punch magazine in December 1915 and was later included in the posthumous collection In Flanders Fields and Other Poems (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1919).
“In Flanders Fields” became popular almost immediately upon its publication. It was translated into other languages and used on billboards advertising Victory Loan Bonds in Canada. The poppy soon became known as the flower of remembrance for the men and women in Britain, France, the United States, and Canada who have died in service of their country. Today, McCrae’s poem continues to be an important part of Remembrance Day celebrations in Canada and Europe, as well as Memorial Day and Veterans Day celebrations in the United States.
Soon after writing “In Flanders Fields,” McCrae was transferred to a hospital in France, where he was named the chief of medical services. Saddened and disillusioned by the war, McCrae found respite in writing letters and poetry, and wrote his final poem, “The Anxious Dead.” In the summer of 1917, McCrae’s health took a turn, and he began suffering from severe asthma attacks and bronchitis. McCrae died of pneumonia and meningitis on January 28, 1918.