The Organization of New France

Care Of Body And Soul

The Medical Profession in New France

Military medical corps first appeared in France in the eighteenth century. Under the reign of Louis XIV, many military hospitals were built, as well as the celebrated Hôtel des Invalides to house disabled veterans. Physicians and surgeons were hired, first to minister to the sick in hospitals and then to accompany military campaigns. Finally, the mounting number of men under arms and the resultant increasing numbers of sick and injured led to the creation of a separate health service for troops in 1708.

In the Navy, physicians, surgeons and apothecaries were first hired individually. However, in 1689 they formed a permanent corps, with all aspects of their duties, on land and sea, laid down in detail. Religious orders took over operation of the infirmary services in the naval hospitals.

In New France, as in other colonies, medical specialists were rare. There were only four physicians in Canada during the entire French Regime. Surgeons were more common, but their training was rudimentary. Until 1743, they were joined with barbers in a single occupational guild: that of the barber-surgeons! Surgeons had to be skilled primarily at handling saws and blades. They made incisions, amputated limbs, trepanned, bled patients, and served as pharmacists on occasion. Anesthetics were still unknown, and patients underwent surgery with very little to dull the pain, save some brandy and a piece of leather to gnaw on instead of crying out when the pain became intense. Some people were able to undergo amputations while puffing away on their pipes, but others, overcome by horror, had to be pinned down by their comrades. Surgery patients also faced a high danger of infection because little was known about germs and contagion from dirty instruments. Alcohol was used to limit infection and wounds were cauterized with a red-hot iron.

Since there were so few physicians and surgeons in New France, they cared for both soldiers and civilians and were not an integral part of the armed forces as in France. Although some surgeons accompanied the Carignan-Salières Regiment between 1665 and 1668, it was not until shortly after the arrival of the Navy troops in the 1680s that a permanent structure was established. Beginning in 1686 in Canada, but not until the eighteenth century in Louisbourg, a surgeon-major provided services and in return was paid three livres a month per company, a sum that was deducted from the pay of the soldiers. Like the royal physician, this surgeon-major treated both soldiers and sailors.