TESSIER, FRANÇOIS-XAVIER, doctor, apothecary, militia officer, publisher, editor, translator, office holder, politician, and teacher; b. 15 Sept. 1799 at Quebec, son of Michel Tessier, a master saddler and merchant, and Josephte Huot Saint-Laurent; d. unmarried 24 Dec. 1835 at Quebec.
François-Xavier Tessier began studying medicine when he was about 16. In March 1820, after a four-year apprenticeship, he sought permission from the medical examiners for the district of Quebec to practise as a surgeon, and they considered that he had the required abilities. But a year and a half later, although they recognized he had made substantial progress, the same examiners recommended that for admission as a doctor he continue his studies at a university. Since there were no such establishments in Lower Canada, Tessier went to New York, where he spent nearly two years furthering his education.
On his return to the province Tessier qualified as a doctor. In April 1823 he became apothecary of the Emigrant Hospital at Quebec, a position that gave him responsibility for the institution and provided during the navigation season board, lodging, and a salary of £50. The young graduate proved a firm administrator. He even rebuked the esteemed physicians François Blanchet and Joseph Parant* for not respecting hospital regulations. He dismissed the director and his wife, who were discovered drunk. Perhaps because of this severity, which some thought excessive, his appointment was not renewed the following season. He was then made assistant surgeon to Quebec’s 1st Militia Battalion.
In January 1826 Tessier brought out at Quebec the first issue of the Quebec Medical Journal/Journal de médecine de Québec. An enterprising young man, he hoped to make his bimonthly periodical the strongest bond for the medical profession in Lower Canada. He also wanted to provide his colleagues with a means of “communicating with masters of the art” in both America and Europe. A further goal was to eradicate the popular prejudices “that constantly frustrate the Canadian doctor’s zeal.” But the journal ceased publication in October 1827 for lack of support.
The following year Tessier went back to New York, where he remained until the spring of 1830. There he contributed to a New York newspaper and published an English translation of Louis-Jacques Bégin’s Impressive Thérapeutique, to which he added numerous notes. During the same period he published a prospectus for a forthcoming “Journal des sciences naturelles de l’Amérique du Nord,” which he described as a continuation of the Quebec Medical Journal. A periodical covering botany, natural history, chemistry, mineralogy, pharmacy, and of course medicine and surgery, it was to be published in New York and to be addressed to “the immense French population scattered all over America.” Unlike the Quebec Medical Journal, which was bilingual, it would be entirely in French; “since that language is, among modern languages, the only one that is appropriate to all the sciences,” he averred, “it is obvious that none of them, certainly [not] the English language, is suitable to serve as its interpreter.” Tessier was quite certain his project would succeed and therefore was not afraid to announce that a 300-page issue would appear quarterly. His success did not, however, match his rashness, for the journal never saw the light of day. But the initiative was proof of his determination, especially after the failure of his earlier venture into medical journalism.
Tessier returned to Lower Canada, and on 7 July 1830 he was appointed health officer for the port of Quebec by the governor, on Louis-Joseph Papineau*’s recommendation, some said later. That summer he became administrator of a new hospital for “fever patients” which had been established at Pointe-Lévy (Lauzon and Lévis). He carried out the duties of the two offices under the extremely difficult conditions caused by the arrival of tens of thousands of immigrants suffering from hunger and contagious diseases. In October 1831, when a cholera epidemic was feared, Tessier returned to New York at the request of the House of Assembly to obtain information on the organization of a health and quarantine service in a big port.
Despite the measures taken, cholera broke out at Quebec in June 1832 and spread rapidly through the country. The dreadful scourge was soon beyond the resources of the board of health. There was a flood of recrimination. The board cast the blame on Tessier, who was alleged to have ignored the instructions given him. In October he was suspended and finally removed from his post as health officer. But the grounds that the board advanced for its action were dubious and, as two inquiries initiated by the assembly revealed, of a partisan nature. The board in fact found it difficult to conceal its motives. At the time, Tessier was seriously considering running for election to the assembly under the banner of the Patriote party. Several members of the board supported the opposing party and used the situation to settle political accounts. According to the painter Joseph Légaré*, the board had already closed the hospital at Pointe-Lévy “to persecute” Tessier.
In July 1832 elections had been called in Dorchester riding following the death of Louis Lagueux from cholera. Tessier had announced his candidacy but soon withdrew from the contest. In August, Thomas Lee’s death left the Lower Town Quebec riding open, and Tessier entered the lists. He even published an address to the constituents in Le Canadien. As before, he withdrew. He later claimed that the hostility of the members of the board of health, who were “also my political adversaries,” had put him in an awkward position and this was “one of the chief reasons that prompted me to retire from a contest in which I had every prospect of success.” But his withdrawal may have been largely brought about by the attitude of several Patriote members of the assembly who held it against him that he had a highly paid government post. Consequently his presence as a candidate would have split the Patriote vote. A year later things had changed. Tessier, who had lost his job because of his political friendships, was now considered a victim of the governor and his entourage. Therefore, when Saguenay riding fell vacant, Le Canadien supported his candidacy with alacrity, portraying him as an honest and enlightened Patriote. On 24 Oct. 1833 he was elected with a comfortable majority.
Tessier played an important role in the field of medicine. When a new medical act was passed in 1831 altering the method of appointment to the boards of medical examiners in Lower Canada, he was elected to the Quebec board, of which he became an active member. He shared with four leading doctors of the town the responsibility for drawing up the board’s own regulations, was named its secretary after Charles-Norbert Perrault’s death, also from cholera, and served on most of the committees it set up, including one that studied the havoc created by quack doctors and another that was responsible for inspecting apothecaries’ shops. In July 1834 the municipal council of Quebec chose him, on the board’s recommendation, as physician to the Marine and Emigrant Hospital. In addition Tessier had played a part in the founding of the Quebec Medical Society in 1826. He became the secretary, and then president, and presented several papers before it, including one on the relationship between pulmonary illnesses and premature puberty. The following year he helped found the Société pour l’Encouragement des Sciences et des Arts en Canada. He became the secretary general and one of its most ardent promoters.
Despite his many activities Tessier found time to teach medicine. During the cholera epidemic in 1832 he offered, with the aid of his students, to tend half the patients at the temporary cholera hospital. One of his major concerns was the founding of a society to encourage smallpox vaccination among the poor. Disappointed in his hopes, in November 1833 he organized a vaccination clinic in his home on Rue Saint-Joseph with the assistance of medical students.
It is difficult to define the theories and principles that guided Tessier in his practice. However, the catalogue of his library, the articles he published in the Quebec Medical Journal, and the notes appended to his translation of Bégin’s work indicate who his mentors were and what he was concerned about. In his library the principal medical journals of England and the United States were side by side with the works of the famous French doctors of the period: Marie-François-Xavier Bichat, Jacques-Mathieu Delpech, and François Broussais, a trio who in Tessier’s view had revitalized medical science, and Philippe Pinel, who had humanized the treatment of the mentally ill. Tessier deplored the conditions in which such patients lived in the Canadas. His journal adds the names of Guillaume Dupuytren and François Magendie to the list of illustrious Frenchmen. He considered the American Benjamin Rush, who greatly influenced contemporary medicine, one of the most knowledgeable doctors of his epoch. He never tired of urging his colleagues to forget “the theoretical approach” and to observe nature. He fought against the prejudices and “the old habits” that were deeply rooted among rural people particularly, constituting obstacles to the advance of medicine and fertile ground for quackery.
In the controversy among doctors in Europe and North America over whether cholera was contagious, Tessier sided with those who believed it was not. They held that it appeared suddenly as a result of “a particular condition of the atmosphere,” as did measles and the plague. Tessier did admit the contagious nature of smallpox and syphilis. Like most of his colleagues, however, he theorized that fevers came from miasmas.
Tessier admired Jean-Jacques Rousseau and believed in the original goodness of man. He read Rabelais, Voltaire, and Diderot. Like many Patriote members of the assembly he apparently admired the neighbouring republic, inspired as it was “by the genius of liberty.” With a few friends he had great confidence in the progress of humanity and distrusted intervention by the state in social concerns.
An energetic and ambitious man, François-Xavier Tessier would probably have achieved an enviable status if death had not cut short his brilliant career. He died at the age of 36 after a long illness. Papineau, who attended his funeral, regretted the loss of this “man of genius [and] incomparable zeal.”
François-Xavier Tessier translated a work by Louis-Jacques Bégin as The French practice of medicine . . . (New York, 1829). He is the author of Précis d’un discours . . . le 4 janvier 1832 . . . contenant l’éloge historique de feu J. Labrie, écuïer, médecin et membre du Parlement provinciale, etc. (Québec, 1832).
ANQ-M, P-26. ANQ-Q, CE1-1, 15 sept. 1799, 28 déc. 1835; P-68. Arch. de la ville de Québec, XI, A, 26 mars–24 sept. 1823; B, 12 mars–17 nov. 1832. ASQ, Fonds Viger–Verreau, carton 62, no. 139; Univ., sér.U, U-18, 11 juill. 1831–6 oct. 1834. PAC, RG 4, B28, 49: 816–21. L.C., House of Assembly, Journals, 1831–33; Statutes, 1831–32, c.47. La Bibliothèque canadienne (Montréal), 6 (1827–28). Le Canadien, 26 oct., 2, 19 nov. 1831; 18, 30 mai, 4, 25 juill., 31 août, 7, 10, 12, 14, 17, 19 sept., 17 oct. 1832; 11, 15, 22, 27 févr., 26 avril, 24 mai, 17 juill., 20, 25 sept., 11, 18, 30 oct., 4, 8, 11 nov. 1833; 27 janv., 10, 14 mars, 18 avril 1834; 25 déc. 1835; 15 févr. 1836. La Minerve, 4 juin 1827; 23, 27 juill. 1829; 18, 22 oct. 1832. L’Observateur (Montréal), 25 déc. 1830, 2 juill. 1831. Quebec Gazette, 18 Jan., 28 June 1821; 15 April, 6 May 1824; 5 Jan. 1826. Quebec Mercury, 27, 29 Oct. 1831; 8, 18 Sept. 1832. F.-J. Audet, “Les législateurs du Bas-Canada.” Abbott, Hist. of medicine. M.-J. et G. Ahern, Notes pour l’hist. de la médecine. Antonio Drolet, “Un hôpital municipal à Québec en 1834,” Trois siècles de médecine québécoise (Québec, 1970), 66–74. J. J. Heagerty, Four centuries of medical history in Canada and a sketch of the medical history of Newfoundland (2v., Toronto, 1928). C.-M. Boissonnault, “Histoire de la faculté de médecine de Laval,” Laval médical (Québec), 17 (1952): 968–1008. Sylvio Leblond, “L’hôpital de la Marine de Québec,” Laval médical, 16 (1951): 1082–97.