AHERN, MICHAEL JOSEPH, physician and professor; b. 19 March 1844 at Quebec, son of Patrick Ahern and Catharine Noonan; m. there 11 Sept. 1877 Marie-Eugénie-Georgiana Marcotte (d. 6 April 1896), and they had ten children, four stillborn; d. there 18 April 1914.
Michael Joseph Ahern’s parents were natives of Cork (Republic of Ireland). The registers of births, marriages, and deaths show that his father worked as a day labourer at Quebec from 1837 to 1843, and then as a customs employee until his death in 1874. His mother died on 7 Aug. 1854, at the age of 40, and his father married Ellen Farley on 24 Nov. 1856.
Ahern was first taught by Daniel McSweeney of Quebec; he was subsequently educated by the Brothers of the Christian Schools, and he entered the École Normale Laval in 1860. The next year, at age 17, he commenced teaching in Saint-Romuald, on the south shore of the St Lawrence, and at the same time began to take an interest in medicine. In 1864, on the advice of the village priest, Abbé Pierre-Télesphore Sax, who had noticed his aptitudes, he enrolled as a medical student at the Université Laval. After his graduation in 1868, he returned to Saint-Romuald and set up his practice.
Four years later, following the death of Dr Thomas G. McGrath, he moved to Lower Town Quebec; he established his office on Rue Notre-Dame, near the port and the ward’s Irish community. In 1885 he would relocate to Upper Town, where he took up residence on Rue Sainte-Anne and then on Rue des Jardins.
Unlike other professors who had been recruited by Laval upon completing their studies, Ahern embarked on his university career after ten years in private practice. In 1878 he was given charge of the clinic for diseases of the elderly, which was held at St Bridget’s Home, and he would be the visiting physician at the home throughout his career. Three years later he was named to replace Dr Laurent Catellier as professor of practical anatomy and practical surgery, which he taught until 1898 and 1899 respectively. He was also professor of rhinology and laryngology from 1894 to 1898, descriptive anatomy from 1898 to 1907, and professional ethics from 1904 to 1914.
Ahern became the medical faculty’s representative on the university council in 1903 and he succeeded Catellier as dean in 1910, at a time when the faculty was undergoing sweeping changes. One of these involved reorganizing the courses to conform to a new system stipulated in the medical legislation of 1909 [see Albert Laurendeau]: the period of study was increased from four to five years and subjects such as pathological anatomy and dermatology were introduced. During Ahern’s term as dean, the pathological anatomy laboratory was opened in the fall of 1913, the bacteriology laboratory and faculty museums were reorganized, the first public-health training program was set up, and new resources were provided for the clinical courses at the Hôtel-Dieu.
Besides having coordinated many of these reforms along with Arthur Vallée, who became secretary of the faculty in 1908, over the years Ahern gained a reputation for competence and a remarkable ability to teach, especially in anatomy and the surgical clinic. The university had granted him tenure on 28 June 1879 and awarded him the honorary degree of doctor of medicine on 19 June 1880.
University teaching was poorly remunerated at this time, but it conferred the honour and prestige that guaranteed a large private practice, which alone could keep a family in comfortable circumstances. In addition to his association with St Bridget’s Home, Ahern worked from 1873 to 1882 as a physician at the dispensary of the Sœurs de la Charité de Québec on Rue Saint-Olivier, and from 1876 to 1885 as a vaccinating physician in Champlain and Saint-Pierre wards.
It was mainly as a surgeon, however, that Ahern distinguished himself. A journalist stated in 1892 that he was “one of the most notable surgeons of his time,” and, according to a medical colleague, he had a special manual dexterity that enabled him to perform difficult and risky operations. He was also one of the first to put the principles of bacteriology into practice at Quebec. He had been introduced to the microbial theories of Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister at the outset of his medical training and in 1867, when still a student, he began to familiarize himself with Lister’s antiseptic techniques, which were then being tried at the Marine and Emigrant Hospital. He was put in charge of clinical teaching at the Hôtel-Dieu in 1885, succeeding Alfred Jackson, a founder of the faculty, and there he showed what he could do. The hospital had three physicians, but only one of them, the 61-year-old Charles-Eusèbe Lemieux, was a surgeon. Ahern, who was 20 years younger and still at the height of his powers, put antiseptic and aseptic methods firmly in place. The first was well established by 1890 and the transition to the second was begun nine years later.
When the Hôtel-Dieu was enlarged and equipped with a modern operating room in 1892, Ahern monitored the project to ensure that the best hygienic conditions were fostered. In 1902, when through a fundraising initiative of his colleague Albert Marois the operating room was renovated, Ahern inaugurated it by performing a laparotomy before the members of the Association des Médecins de Langue Française de l’Amérique du Nord, who were gathered for their first convention.
The substantial increase in surgery during this period soon made it necessary to expand the department. Ahern’s first step, at the end of 1898, had been to have a resident intern appointed. Other colleagues came to complete the team, including Albert Marois in 1896 and Pierre-Calixte Dagneau in 1904. Dagneau, who was Ahern’s assistant, would succeed him in 1914. As a result of all these efforts, the surgical department of the Hôtel-Dieu had 11 physicians by 1913.
An inquisitive man with an innovative turn of mind, Ahern visited the United States almost every year, and “always came back with something to improve,” according to a nun at the hospital. For example, he experimented with spinal anaesthesia using cocaine on 27 Nov. 1900, a few months after the method had been perfected by Théodore Tuffier in Paris. Specialized care required more continuous medical supervision and a more highly qualified nursing staff. At Ahern’s request, the Augustines de la Miséricorde de Jésus (Augustinian Nuns), who owned and ran the hospital, had had a telephone installed there by 1888. In 1904 he developed a course to prepare the nuns more adequately for their work with patients. It was the forerunner of the school for nurses at the Hôtel-Dieu.
Ahern was associated with the history of several medical societies and publications of his time. In the mid 1870s he belonged to the Association Médicale de Québec, founded by Dr Charles-Auguste Verge, which brought together physicians from Saint-Roch ward. This society did not last long, however, and in 1877 he himself tried to organize another, the Cercle Médical de Québec. It dissolved after three meetings. In 1897 he helped set up the Société Médicale de Québec and became its first president. At its second meeting, on 25 February, Ahern read a paper about spontaneous generation. At the provincial and national levels, from 1877 to 1880 he was involved in the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Province of Quebec as a member of its board of governors and an examiner. He was also a founder of the Association des Médecins de Langue Française de l’Amérique du Nord, which met at Quebec in 1902 as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Université Laval. Ahern had chaired the working committee to plan the activities of the surgery section.
When in 1897 Dr Pierre-Paul Boulanger undertook to launch La Revue médicale, the first weekly medical journal in Canada, Ahern was a contributor. After it was decided that the journal would be brought out in Montreal, he played an active role in setting up and successfully publishing the Bulletin médical de Québec, which first appeared on 15 Sept. 1899. He was a member of the editorial committee until his death.
Ahern is known today mainly for his research in the history of medicine. Near the end of his life he developed a keen interest in the subject and wrote numerous biographies (some better than others) of physicians, which he published in instalments in the Bulletin médical de Québec from August 1910. He had got to the letter F by the time he died in April 1914. His son George edited the notes he left and published them in the same periodical, beginning in October 1916. In 1923 all these biographies, totalling more than 500, were put together in a single volume, 100 copies being issued at Quebec under the title Notes pour servir à l’histoire de la médecine dans le Bas-Canada depuis la fondation de Québec jusqu’au commencement du XIXe siècle. The book is still useful for researchers, since Ahern, fortunately, had taken care to cite his sources. It is also one of the few works on the history of Canadian medicine to be translated, appearing in English under the title Useful notes on the history of medicine in Lower Canada from the founding of Quebec to the beginning of the 19th century, (Toronto, 1983).
Small of stature, Ahern was said to be shy and “unassuming in appearance.” His talks were thought “original and humorous.” Full of curiosity, he was interested not only in the development and history of his own discipline, but also in botany and mineralogy. He was a member of the United Irish League, serving on its board in 1873 and as its president from 1904 to 1906. He was also a practising Roman Catholic.
Michael Joseph Ahern died on 18 April 1914 following a long illness. At the funeral “a huge crowd of admirers and friends paid him their last respects,” it was reported, and the province’s major dailies carried obituaries. Ahern had played a central role in the medical community of his time at Quebec, especially through his work in disseminating modern medical knowledge and practices.
AC, Québec, Minutiers, J. B. Parkin, 3 nov. 1913. ANQ-Q, CE1-1, 19 mars 1844, 7 août 1854, 11 sept. 1877; CE1-98, 24 nov. 1856, 6 avril 1896, 18 avril 1914; CN1-302, 24, 28 avril 1896. Arch. de l’Univ. Laval (Québec), U541 (Faculté de médecine), procès-verbaux du conseil de la faculté, 3 janv. 1907; 1er mai 1911; 14 févr., 8 mai 1913. Arch. du Monastère de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Québec, Actes capitulaires, 1900–22: f.170; Hôtel-Dieu du Précieux-Sang, observations, 1899–190: 801–2; Mère Sainte-Cécile [Marie-Laure Gaumond], “Coup d’œil sur le mouvement progressif du service de chirurgie à l’Hôtel-Dieu de Québec” (texte dactylographié, 1945), 3–5, 24, 27; Service de chirurgie, Hôtel-Dieu du Précieux-Sang, Québec, 1899–1908: 26; Tiroir 6, dossier 55, no.1 (O.-E. Mathieu, recteur, à la supérieure, 26 juin 1904); dossier 880, no.1 (M. J. Ahern à la supérieure, 29 oct. 1898). ASQ, Journal du séminaire, 3: 27 avril 1881; 5: 25 févr. 1897; 8: 10 juin 1910; 9: 18 avril 1914; PVU, 19 juin 1880. Le Devoir, 20 avril 1914. L’Électeur (Québec), 7 sept. 1892. La Presse, 20 avril 1914. La Semaine religieuse de Québec, 23 avril 1914. Le Soleil, 20 avril 1914. “Actualités médicales,” L’Union médicale du Canada (Montréal), 31 (1902): 236. An annotated bibliography of Canadian medical periodicals, 1826–1975, comp. C. G. Roland and Paul Potter ([Hamilton, Ont.], 1979), 55. C.-M. Boissonnault, Histoire de la faculté de médecine de Laval (Québec, 1953), 307–15. Directory, Quebec, 1871–1914. Arthur Maheux, “Les doyens de la faculté de médecine,” Laval médical (Québec), 23 (1957): 51. Albert Marois, “Analgésie chirurgicale et obstétricale par injection sous-arachnoïdienne lombaire de cocaïne,” in Premier congrès de l’Association des médecins de langue française de l’Amérique du Nord tenu à Québec, les 25, 26 et 27 juin 1902; textes des mémoires (Québec, 1903), 264–71. Québec, Statuts, 1909, c.55. François Rousseau, La croix et le scalpel: histoire des Augustines de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Québec (1639–1989) (1v. paru, Sillery, Qué., 1989– ), 1: 212, 248–49, 263–64, 282. Arthur Simard, “Nécrologie: Michael-Joseph Ahern,” L’Union médicale du Canada, 43 (1914): 256–61. “Société médicale de Québec: [le procès-verbal de la] séance du 5 février 1897,” L’Union médicale du Canada, 26 (1897): 201–4. Univ. Laval, Annuaire, 1868/69: 15; 1913/14: 53–54, 57, 114–15; 1914/15: 196–97; Faculté de médecine, Annuaire, 1938/39: 7.