One of seven children, Richard Maurice Bucke was born on March 18, 1837 at Methwold, Norfolk, England to parents Horatio Walpole Bucke and Clarissa Andrews Bucke. His parents emigrated to Canada in his first year and settled in London, Ontario. At 16 Bucke left home and moved to the United States, where he worked in several locations as a labourer. In 1856 Bucke travelled to the Sierra Nevada where he joined forces with the prospectors Allen and Hosea Grosh. Hosea died within the year of blood poisoning, and in 1857 Bucke and Allen Grosh were lost in a snowstorm. They went 5 days and 4 nights without food or fire, until they arrived at a small mining camp. Grosh died of exhaustion and exposure, while Bucke recovered, despite losing one foot and part of the other to severe frostbite.
Upon his return to Canada in 1858, Bucke enrolled at McGill University to study medicine. He graduated in 1862 with the distinction of being the gold medalist of his year and winning a prize for his thesis, "The Correlation of Vital and Physical Forces." After spending time in Europe for post-graduate studies he returned to Sarnia to take over his late brother's medical practice. He was summoned to California in 1864 to give evidence in the Comstock Lode Litigation before returning to Canada in 1865 where he married Jessie Maria Gurd and settled down to practice medicine in Sarnia for the following ten years. Bucke and his wife had 8 children: Clare Georgina (1866 - 1867), Maurice Andrews (1868 - 1899), Jessie Clare (1870 - 1943), William Augustus (1873 - 1933), Edward Pardee (1875 - 1913), Ina Matilda (1877 - 1968), Harold Langmuir (1879 - 1951) and Robert Walpole (1881 - 1923). His first born, Clare Georgina, died at 10 months old, and his eldest son, Maurice Andrews, was killed in an accident in 1899.
Bucke was appointed Medical Superintendent at the new mental hospital in Hamilton in 1876, and after a year he was transferred to the Ontario Hospital in London where he served for 25 years. Bucke read Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" in 1867 and claimed it to be one of the most important events of his life. He travelled to New Jersey to meet Whitman in 1877 which marked the beginning of a long, close friendship between the two men. Upon Whitman's death in 1892, Bucke became one of his literary executors and was a pall bearer at his funeral.
Bucke was one of the first of his time to depart from orthodox therapeutics at the Asylum. By 1882 he had abolished the medicinal use of alcohol in the Asylum and by 1883 he had discontinued the use of physical restraints and initiated an open-door policy. He also pioneered many surgical "cures" for lunacy, including gynaecological surgery.
Bucke was an active writer, and his many noted works include several psychiatric papers, "Walt Whitman, a biography of the man," "Man's Moral Nature," and "Cosmic Consciousness," the last of which has been held in high esteem for many years and reprinted many times since its publication.
Bucke was one of the founders of the University of Western Ontario's Medical School and in 1882 was appointed Professor of Nervous and Mental Diseases, as well as elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Bucke delivered the opening academic lecture of the year at McGill University by request of the medical faculty in 1891. He became President of the Psychological Section of the British Medical Association in 1897, and the following year he was elected President of the American Medico-Psychological Association.
Bucke died suddenly after slipping on the veranda of his home and striking his head on February 19, 1902. He is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, London, Ontario.