SERRES, ALEXANDRE, surgeon; b. c. 1732 in Saramon, France, son of Jean-Baptiste Serres, a notary, and Gabrielle Marleau; m. first Marie Galliay; m. secondly 26 May 1783 Madeleine Lefebvre in Montreal, Que.; m. thirdly 23 Jan. 1804 Thérèse Migneron in Saint-Laurent, near Montreal; d. 18 Aug. 1812 in Montreal.
Little is known of the career of Alexandre Serres before his arrival in the province of Quebec. By his own statement he had received his master’s letters from the Académie Royale de Chirurgie in Paris. He is also believed to have served in the French army, since a document dating from 1783 states that he was a former “surgeon-major of Monseigneur le Duc de Guines.”
Dr Serres decided to try his luck in the colony, in company with his wife Marie and a child born in London in November 1778. He arrived in August 1779 and on 3 May 1780 sought a post in the army from Governor Haldimand, but without success. Two months later he set up practice in Trois-Rivières, where he bought a house and two lots. He purchased a piece of land at Saint-Sulpice in 1781, but in the end decided to move in the winter of 1781–82 and to live in Montreal. On 23 Feb. 1782 he sold his properties at Trois-Rivières to the merchant Louis de La Grave.
At this period Serres was practising in Montreal as a surgeon and obstetrician. He was not always successful. For example, on 6 Oct. 1786 he and Dr George Selby* delivered Marie-Anne Mackay, wife of Charles-Roch Quinson de Saint-Ours, of a child. Serres then prescribed treatment for the mother and is supposed to have added that she should be given only what he ordered. Two days later, on entering the house of his patient, he noticed a syringe that had just been used for an enema. According to a later statement he then expressed surprise to several people and considered his presence was no longer required. He had cause to regret his actions since mother and child died of complications ensuing from the delivery. On 11 October a meeting of surgeons criticized his conduct. Eight days later Serres replied to his detractors through a notice in the Montreal Gazette declaring that it “would be better to stick to acting legally and with evidence rather than by any other illicit means.” On 13 November a warrant was issued for his arrest on a charge of having caused the deaths of Marie-Anne Mackay and her child by ignorance and negligence. Some days later he begged Lord Dorchester [Guy Carleton] to defer giving effect to the judgement against him.
Whatever the outcome, this unexpected accident did not prevent Serres from continuing his career. On 27 Sept. 1787 he announced in the Montreal Gazette that he was prepared to give “a course on midwifery” for surgeons and midwives from both town and country. Paradoxically it is largely through his observations on the phenomenon of the “great darkness” that he has attracted the attention of historians. On three occasions in October 1785 the sky at Quebec and Montreal grew dark in broad daylight. Serres then noticed that the rain accompanying this event contained sulphur, and he concluded that “the only cause of this phenomenon was the inflammation of some neighbouring mines.” Geologists much later attributed the phenomenon to minor volcanic eruptions.
In the light of these details it would seem that Serres had had a scientific education. However, it was not until 1802 that, to comply with the ordinance of 1788 regulating the practice of medicine, he sought a licence as surgeon and obstetrician; it was probably refused him. Around 1804 Serres settled in Saint-Laurent, near Montreal. A few years later he returned to Montreal, where he died in 1812.
Alexandre Serres was quick-tempered and difficult. The newspapers of the period record some of his disputes with the people around him. It seems clear that his professional misfortunes should be imputed more to his personality than to any real incompetence.
ANQ-M, CE1-44, 23 janv. 1804; CE1-51, 27 sept. 1782, 26 mai 1783, 7 déc. 1791, 19 août 1812; CN1-167, 9, 14 mai 1792; CN1-269, 12 Feb. 1807; CN1-313, 4 mai 1783. ANQ-MBF, CN1-5, 8 juill., 29 sept. 1780. BL, Add. mss 21878: 242; 21879: 39 (copies at PAC). PAC, RG 4, A1: 9970–71; A3, 6, no.120. Montreal Gazette, 20 Oct. 1785; 19 Oct. 1786; 27 Sept. 1787; 19 Aug. 1790; 29 March, 5. 19, 26 April 1792. Quebec Gazette, 27 Oct. 1785. M.-J. et G. Ahern, Notes pour l’hist. de la médecine, 513–14. É.-Z. Massicotte, “Un chirurgien gascon,” BRH, 42 (1936): 719–21.