OLIVA, FRÉDÉRIC-GUILLAUME (Frederick William), physician; b. c. 1749, probably of German origin; m. 30 Jan. 1782 Catherine Couillard Des Islets, and they had eight children; d. 31 July 1796 in Quebec City.
During the American revolutionary war Frédéric-Guillaume Oliva served as surgeon major in one of the regiments lent to Great Britain by the Duke of Brunswick and commanded by Friedrich Adolphus von Riedesel. Oliva’s military experience, although grim, must have greatly assisted his professional development, since the German troops had their share of injuries and wounds as well as such diseases as scurvy, smallpox, and dysentery. After the war Oliva practised medicine in Saint-Thomas-de-Montmagny (Montmagny, Que.), but in 1792 he and his family moved to Quebec City, where he practised for the remainder of his life.
Oliva, like many of the German soldiers who settled in Quebec, was Roman Catholic. He was assimilated into Canadian, not English, society when he married the daughter of the co-seigneur of Rivière-du-Sud, Louis Couillard Des Islets. He joined many of his fellow citizens in signing the Loyal Declaration of 1794, which, written in response to the French revolution and against the “designing and wicked men” who would follow its example, extolled the British constitution and condemned those who were then ruling France.
Oliva seems to have been dedicated to the welfare of his patients, whatever their rank. He once requested the authorities to postpone the prison sentence given a farmer until the man had fully recovered from a severe attack of dysentery. As for his medical theories, known largely from the Mémoires of Philippe-Joseph Aubert* de Gaspé, they appear to have been based on a healthy scepticism about received medical opinion. Aubert de Gaspé, who was inoculated with smallpox by the doctor at the age of five, wrote that Oliva pioneered in the prescription of fresh air and daily exercise for those afflicted or inoculated with the disease, at a time when treatment usually consisted of heat and strong liquor. According to Aubert de Gaspé, Oliva once said during a smallpox epidemic, “How lucky are those unfortunates who fall ill in the country, close by a stream and under the shadow of the pine trees; ninety per cent of such will probably recover.” Although many people thought him mad at the time, he used an ice bath in the cure of typhus, and it is said that he saved the life of his son, Frédéric-Godlip, in this way.
In 1788 Oliva was appointed to the first board of medical examiners for the District of Quebec, which together with a similar body at Montreal had been established by a licensing act passed that year. As an examiner he appears to have probed the more fundamental issues of medical treatment. We know, for example, that Pierre Fabre*, dit Laterrière, was asked by him, not to name surgical instruments, nor even to describe the circulation of the blood, but to explore the differences between the patient in the books and the patient in the bed. In 1795 Oliva, along with James Fisher*, John Mervin Nooth*, and George Longmore, was examined by the House of Assembly on the problem of contagious diseases brought into the colony by ocean-going vessels. That year the assembly passed a statute enabling the governor to quarantine ships suspected of carrying disease.
Despite his many achievements, Oliva seems to have been a modest man. The condescension and boasting characteristic of the advertisements of European-trained physicians were entirely absent in the announcement opening his Quebec City practice, and for a doctor he had an attractive humility in the face of the healing power of nature. Aubert de Gaspé wrote that his death “was an irreparable loss for Quebec, where good doctors were very rare.”
PAC, MG 24, L3, pp.5027–28; RG 4, B28, 47. P.[-J.] Aubert de Gaspé, Mémoires (Ottawa, 1866), 17–25. Bas-Canada, chambre d’Assemblée, Journaux, 1795. Max von Eelking, Memoirs, and letters and journals, of Major General Riedesel, during his residence in America, trans. W. I. Stone (2v., Albany, N.Y., 1868). Fabre, dit Laterrière, Mémoires (A. Garneau). Quebec Gazette, 10 Aug. 1786, 23 April 1789, 19 April, 14 June, 10 July 1794, 26 March 1795. Tanguay, Dictionnaire. Abbott, History of medicine, 41–49. M.-J. et G. Ahern, Notes pour l’hist. de la médecine, 217–23, 428–29. P.-G. Roy, “Biographies canadiennes,” BRH, XXI (1915), 91–94.