Today, French medicine takes root in Canada. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The French explorer Cartier
came to the St. Lawrence Valley in the 1530s.
Canada stayed French from then 'til England took
over in 1760. This land, this New France, grew far
more slowly than New England or New Spain, to the
Medicine came first to New Spain. The University of
Mexico had a medical school as early as 1579. They
graduated a kind of ivory-tower medical scholar
long before French or English settlers arrived.
Harvard didn't set up a medical school until after
the Revolution. It was 1820 before Canada had one.
In the long run that may've given the North an
edge. New Spain held on to the static academic
medicine of Medieval Europe. But the French and
English were on their own. So they evolved new
medical practices. They paid better heed to native
Plutarch once said: "As music has to examine
discord to create harmony so medicine must examine
disease to create health." It was a new and
clear-eyed examination of disease that was changing
17th-century medicine. And the new world,
especially Canada, was about to become a laboratory
for that change.
For years, the medical personnel in New France and
New England were what we would call para-medics.
New England had seen only one medical doctor by
1650. And he'd come over only to check on a
But para-medical practice had just found new
meaning in France. French physicians sat in their
offices and advised. The bloodier work of medicine
fell to barber surgeons.
Just after Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence, a
remarkable barber surgeon surfaced in Paris. He was
Ambroise Paré -- a superb scientific
observer working in a second-class trade.
By 1600 Paré had transformed French medicine
by modernizing surgical practice. He finally became
part of the medical establishment. But to do that,
he'd reshaped medicine itself.
The French became far more clinical. The modern
hospital took shape in France. So French colonists
were served by field medics -- Catholic nuns,
military barber surgeons. Those people reflected
the practical turn medicine had taken back home.
Canada may've been late with university medicine.
But her hospitals were far ahead of anything to the
south. Those hospitals became training grounds for
midwives, surgeons, and nurses.
Canada was slow to get there. But by the end of the
19th century, she'd come the farthest. By the early
1900s she'd given us Osler and insulin. She'd given
us the state of the art in surgery and anatomy. In
the end it took the cold isolation of the American
North to bring practical French medicine to full
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Risse, G.B., Medicine in New Spain. Medicine in
the New World. (R.L. Numbers, ed.) Knoxville:
The Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1987.
Gelfand, T., Medicine in New France. Medicine
in the New World. (R.L. Numbers, ed.)
Knoxville: The Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1987.
Christianson, E.H., Medicine in New England.
Medicine in the New World. (R.L.
Numbers, ed.) Knoxville: The Univ. of Tennessee
Keynes, G., Introduction. The Apologie and
Treatise of Ambroise Paré. (by A.
Paré) Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
For more on medicine in "New Spain" see Episode
752. For more on Ambroise
Paré, see Episodes 327 and 603.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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