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PERRAULT, CHARLES-NORBERT, physician, surgeon, militia officer, jp, and office holder; b. 16 April 1793 in Montreal, son of Joseph-François Perrault* and Ursule Macarty; d. 16 June 1832 at Quebec.

Charles-Norbert Perrault was the sixth of 10 or possibly 12 children. Shortly before his birth his father found himself in desperate financial straits: “Would to God,” he wrote to his uncle François Baby* on 22 Oct. 1792, “I could get a [position] to help me keep my large family! Without a profession or employment I find the times very hard.” The year 1795 saw the end of these difficulties, and the family came to live at Quebec; however, Mme Perrault died there in April 1800.

Charles-Norbert was the son of a man devoted to the cause of education and he studied at the Petit Séminaire de Québec from 1806 till 1810; then, in 1814, he went to Edinburgh to study medicine and surgery. During his stay overseas he had the opportunity to observe the progress made in medical services and assistance in Great Britain, to exchange ideas, and to plan projects. His conversations with his friend and compatriot Anthony von Iffland* proved particularly fruitful in this regard.

Possessed of a diploma as a doctor of medicine and proud of his membership in the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh, Perrault returned to his native land. Soon after, in July 1818, he received his licence to practise medicine in Lower Canada. With Iffland, who had also come back, Perrault put forward a scheme dear to both the young doctors: to found “in the City of Quebec, a Dispensary, on the Plan of those in Europe, for the relief of the indigent sick,” where medical instruction would also be given. At a meeting in that city on 1 Sept. 1818 Perrault delivered a long speech advocating such an establishment. Three months later the Quebec Dispensary was officially opened. In the course of a year several hundred sick people were treated and courses in medicine, surgery, physiology, anatomy, and obstetrics were given. Despite initial enthusiasm and the undeniable usefulness of the dispensary, it closed in January 1820 for lack of funds. A public campaign had brought in less than £100, and though several requests had been made to the House of Assembly, no aid had been granted.

The assembly’s refusal to back the initiative of Perrault and Iffland stemmed in part from the establishment of the Quebec Emigrants’ Society, founded in July 1819 to help immigrants, which undoubtedly had reduced the number of patients treated at the dispensary. But the prime cause of their failure was the lack of support for the undertaking from influential people. The dispensary was an innovation put forward by dynamic young doctors who were not yet out of their twenties, but were possessed of training in many respects superior to that of older physicians, who in turn insisted upon the value of their experience; thus the new institution was likely to arouse misgivings, distrust, and indeed outright opposition. The desire of these young doctors to reform medical practice in Lower Canada came as much from humanitarian motives as from the wish to make a place for themselves in society. The medical élite, which included well-known Canadians such as François Blanchet and Joseph Painchaud* in addition to British military personnel, thus felt threatened and appeared reticent to support Perrault and Iffland. As an assemblyman, Blanchet in particular could have backed the requests for aid made to the house, but he did nothing.

The set-back did not, however, prevent Perrault from becoming a prominent doctor. His status was enhanced by his marriage at Quebec on 12 Oct. 1819 with Charlotte-Louise, a daughter of Pierre-Édouard Desbarats; she had received a good education with the Ursulines, was an amateur musician, and above all came from a respectable family. In 1822 he was appointed surgeon to the Île d’Orléans battalion of militia, and two years later he was transferred to Quebec’s 1st Militia Battalion. He received a commission as justice of the peace in May 1824. By that year at the latest he was also on the medical staff of the Emigrant Hospital, and in June he was made one of the medical examiners for the district of Quebec, an indication of his steadily growing reputation for they were responsible for admissions to the medical profession.

Since he was still anxious to participate in reforming medical practice in the colony, Perrault contributed to the Quebec Medical Journal, the first Canadian journal of medicine, which had been launched by his colleague François-Xavier Tessier in January 1826. That year he became vice-president of the Quebec Medical Society, which had just been founded, and two years later he succeeded Dr Joseph Morrin* as president. It was in this capacity that he read a paper to his colleagues on the Baie-Saint-Paul disease in December 1829. The text, which had been prepared from information supplied by Morrin, is a good summary of medical knowledge about the illness at the time. In 1831 the medical society protested against the method of selecting medical examiners in force under an act of 1788, since it favoured British doctors, especially military ones. In 1825, for example, of the seven district of Quebec examiners only Perrault was Canadian. When this injustice was exposed, the society got agreement that the choice of examiners would no longer be left to the governor’s discretion but would be determined by majority vote at a general meeting of the doctors. On 18 July 1831 Perrault was unanimously elected secretary for three years of the new body, the Board of Examiners.

In accordance with the act passed on 25 Feb. 1832 to prevent cholera from entering the province or to minimize its effects, Perrault was appointed resident physician, along with Joseph Parant*, on 1 March, and then health commissioner with Parant and Morrin on 7 March. The measures taken by the commissioners and the board of health that had been set up were, however, insufficient to keep cholera out. The epidemic raged in Lower Canada from June until mid October and caused about 8,000 deaths. Perrault himself was stricken and died on 16 June 1832, at the age of 39, “a victim of his devotion to duty”; he was buried the same day. At the time there reputedly was a rumour that he had been “buried too quickly, having given himself a large dose of opium,” a treatment which according to Dr Olivier Robitaille* was common during the epidemic. As his wife had died in 1830, Perrault left three orphaned daughters, who were taken in by his father Joseph-François.

Charles-Norbert Perrault was a scholar, as his library demonstrates. At the time of his death it comprised 359 volumes, mostly on medical matters. Perrault also owned a barometer, a hygrometer, and a telescope. By 1821 at the latest he had become interested in meteorology, and a number of his readings are still extant. Despite the failure of the dispensary he was able to make an enviable place for himself among his colleagues and was one of the leaders seeking to reform medicine in Lower Canada. His professional success had not, however, kept him from running into financial difficulties throughout his life. In 1832 he did not own any property, and he had a personal estate of £330. Moneys owed him amounted to £165, but he owed £3,254, including £3,113 to his father.

Renald Lessard

ANQ-M, CE1-51, 17 avril 1793. ANQ-Q, CC1, 27 juin 1832; CE1-1, 12 oct. 1819; CN1-16, 11 oct. 1819; CN1-81, 3, 24 juill. 1832; CN1-178, 2 sept. 1828; CN1-208, 28 août 1826, 15 oct. 1829, 1er avril 1830; CN1-230, 18 juin 1817; CN1-253, 31 août 1826; E18/51; P-232/2: 1–15; T11-1/608, no.865; 3556: 801; 3558: 179–80, 217–18; ZQ6–52, 25 févr. 1830. ASQ, mss, 20; Univ., sér.U, U-18, 4–5. PAC, MG 24, I38; RG 4, B28, 49: 645–46; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 65, 271, 360, 641, 656. L.C., House of Assembly, Journaux, 1819: 49; 1825, app.I; Statutes, 1831–32, c.16. Quebec Medical Journal, 1 (1826): 61–62; 2 (1827): 114. Le Canadien, 30 déc. 1818; 13, 20 juill. 1831; 10 mars, 2 mai, 18 juin, 29 oct. 1832. Quebec Gazette, 30 July, 3 Sept. 1818; 19 April, 15 July, 4 Nov. 1819; 24 Jan. 1820; 18 July 1822; 6 May 1824. Quebec almanac, 1823; 1825. C.-M. Boissonnault, Histoire de la faculté de médecine de Laval (Québec, 1953), 88–96. P.-B. Casgrain, Mémorial des familles Casgrain, Baby et Perrault du Canada (Québec, 1898), 180, 186–87. Jolois, J.-FPerrault. Henri Têtu, Histoire des familles Têtu, Bonenfant, Dionne et Perrault (Québec, 1898), 592–93. Jacques Bernier, “François Blanchet et le mouvement réformiste en médecine au début du XIXe siècle,” RHAF, 34 (1980–81): 223–44. Geoffrey Bilson, “The first epidemic of Asiatic cholera in Lower Canada, 1832,” Medical Hist. (London), 21 (1977): 411–33. Ignotus [Thomas Chapais], “La profession médicale au Canada,” BRH, 12 (1906): 142–50. Victor Morin, “L’évolution de la médecine au Canada français,” Cahiers des Dix, 25 (1960): 74–75.

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Renald Lessard, “PERRAULT, CHARLES-NORBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed January 17, 2017, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/perrault_charles_norbert_6E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/perrault_charles_norbert_6E.html
Author of Article: Renald Lessard
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1987
Year of revision: 1987
Access Date: January 17, 2017