Four Centuries Of Care

The clip-clop of hooves on cobblestones provides counterpoint to the shouts of the caleche drivers.  The old walled city hasn’t changed much in four centuries.  Young lovers murmur bedroom French into each other’s ears in the parks and grizzled vieillards doze over coffee in the sidewalk cafes.  The turrets and towers of the old chateau continue to dominate the skyline of this ancient city.

Around the corner, the cloistered gardens of the Hotel-Dieu still provide respite for those whose constitutions are troubled by illness, as they have since the seventeenth century.      

The city provides few surprises for those used to the ambiance of quaint rural French fortress towns.  The big surprise, however, is that this town is in Canada.  An even bigger surprise, at least for Anglophones, is the existence of a hospital in Canada that has provided continuous care to the sick since 1639.  

Of course medical firsts are not unusual for Quebec City.  The first doctor in Canada, Daniel Hay, came over with Champlain in the early 1600’s, as did the country’s first apothecary Louis Hebert.  A statue of Hebert graces one of the city’s many fine parks.  Hebert is also recognized for his farming prowess, hardly unusual considering most of his treatments were herbal and he had no pharmaceutical companies to provide for the needs of his clients in the seventeenth century.

Hôtel-Dieu de Québec

The Hotel-Dieu was the life’s work of the Duchess d’Aiguillon, the niece of Cardinal Richelieu.  Perhaps more well-known as the arch nemesis of Dumas’ fictional three musketeers, Richelieu was the powerful minister of Louis XIII.  The young and beautiful Duchess was widowed at the age of eighteen.  She was determined to become a Carmelite novice, but at the intervention of the Queen and Richelieu this was forbidden by Papal decree.   

The Duchess then set upon the goal of providing care to the bodies and souls of the natives and settlers in French Canada.  She contracted with canonesses of the Order of Saint Augustine, the Hospitallieres de l’Hotel-Dieu de Quebec.  Three nuns were dispatched from Dieppe in Normandy and after three storm racked months made a humble disembarkation to Quebec on August 1, 1639 by fishing boat.  With the help of the governor, le Chevalier de Montmagny, they soon established a small facility devoted to caring for the ill.  Later the Intendant, Jean Talon, realizing the importance of a medical facility, further endowed the nascent Hotel-Dieu.

The hospital has continuously cared for the sick in one capacity or another since its establishment, braving overcrowding epidemics of smallpox, plague and typhus as well as fire and bombardment.  In 1690 the good sisters dug 26 cannon balls out of their hospital and devout Christians that they were, brought them to the French batteries to be returned from the mouths of cannons to their proper owners, the English. After a fire in 1755, the Bishop of Quebec offered his palace as a temporary hospital and volunteered to become its first orderly.

Historical firsts include Canada’s first surgery on a breast cancer in 1700.  This was performed by Dr. Michel Sarrazin, who gave 45 years of service to Hotel-Dieu.

With the decisive battle on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, which killed both the French and English generals, Montcalm and Wolfe, the Hotel-Dieu came under English control.  The Augustine sisters continued to run the establishment, liaising with the English rather than the French Crown, and continue to operate to this day in a modern extension of the facility.  

Other noted medical establishments in Quebec include the L’Hôpital général, almost as old as the Hotel-Dieu, but lying outside the old city walls.  General Montcalm is buried in the hospital’s historic cemetery.  Another interesting former hospital, now the Musee Bon-Pasteur, is worth a visit.  Established in the mid-1800’s by a public minded Scotsman named Muir, it catered to unwed pregnant women, who previously had only the prisons to which to turn.  Sister Marie-Berthe Bailly and two of her charming associates took me on a guided tour of the museum.   The infants and their mothers were cared for by students and staff of Laval Medical School, and actually had better survival rates than the general public!

For a first class tour of Quebec’s heritage, try La Compagnie des Six-Associes.  Featuring period costumed actors/guides, visitors can choose to take a medically orientated tour led by another luminary medic of old Quebec, Dr. Morrin (see The Medical Post, “3-D history of medicine”, July 24, 2002).

Of course Old Quebec should be enjoyed on a level other than that of the medical historical.  I always enjoy dining in Aux Anciens Canadiens,  a restaurant located in the oldest house in Quebec City and featuring traditional cuisine.  They have a very reasonable fixed price menu if you dine between noon and six PM.  The venerable Clarendon Hotel’s restaurant Le Charles Baillairge is not only the oldest in Canada, but features fabulously presented dishes and a great wine list.  The décor is reminiscent of old Vienna and the service impeccable. Afterward be sure to visit the adjacent hotel bar for superb live jazz every night.  

Other musts include a tour of the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, the symbol of Old Quebec, and a funicular ride down to the quaint streets and shops of the Petit Champlain.  Go for a walk along the ramparts and watch the Quebecoises and Quebecois show off their fashion finery.  In the winter you can take a toboggan ride in front of the Le Chateau Frontenac.  In February enjoy the world famous Quebec Winter Carnival with its ice and snow sculptures and ice palace.  You can even stay in a hotel constructed from ice and snow!    

If you go, contact:

Quebec City and Area Tourism and Convention Bureau
399, rue Saint-Joseph Est
Quebec (Quebec) G1K 8E2
Tel. 418 641-6290
Fax. 418 522-0830

La Compagnie des Six-Associes
381, des Franciscains
Tel. 418 692-3033
Fax. 418 692-1001

Image credits:

Hôtel-Dieu de Québec by Pierre-Olivier Fortin – Wikimedia Creative Commons

Hôtel-Dieu de Québec By Sylvainbrousseau – Wikimedia Creative Commons

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