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A French Medicine Man Confronts Yankee Morality in 1788

In 1788 Pierre de Sales Laterrière traveled from Canada to Massachusetts to study medicine. Born around 1743, he had been a practicing doctor for many years. Originally from France, his practice was in Canada, where he had emigrated. But for the next year he would become part of the community of French in New England.

french in new england

"A South-East View of the City of Boston in North America," by J. Carwitham (active 1720-1740), after an unknown artist. Hand-coloured engraving. Printed for Bowles & Carver, No. 69 St. Paul's Church Yard, London. Courtesy of the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

During the American Revolution, Laterrière had been imprisoned, suspected of harboring American sympathies. As the war drew to a close, British loyalists began regulating business in Canada -- to the benefit of loyalists.

Laterrière claimed to have received medical training in France, but he had no documents to prove it. That meant he had to take an examination to obtain permission to practice. Unable to pass the exam, Laterrière traveled to Massachusetts for training.

For one year he studied at Harvard medical college, becoming its first foreign graduate. While in the Boston area, he made friends with many of the French ex-patriots living there.

By 1788, early unrest in France would soon boil over into the French Revolution. Paul Joseph Guérard de Nancrède, French instructor at Harvard, became fast friends with Laterrière, with the two dining together regularly. Nancrède had come to America as a member of the French forces that fought in the American Revolution.

With revolution enveloping his own home country, Nancrède began publication of a short-lived, French-language newspaper in Boston in 1789. The French community had established a Catholic Church in Boston, which Laterrière had joined.

As the doctor undertook his studies, he also absorbed a picture of how American society was developing. He recounts being stopped in New Hampshire for traveling on the Sabbath. This intrusion on his religious liberties offended the Frenchman, but he noted that the man who stopped him did not report him to any legal authority. Rather, the man invited Laterrière to stay with him and take supper rather than continue walking and be harassed.

Laterrière tells the story of another Frenchman who became a good friend. They dined together each Sunday. The young man had been taken in by the family of a wealthy Boston merchant, but he had impregnated the merchant's daughter. The visiting Frenchman, who Laterrière derided as a fop, said that he had impregnanted the daughter of his host, and that the host would not accept him marrying her because of his Catholic religion.

The Frenchman pleaded with Laterrière to induce an abortion, but the doctor refused. He tells the story in his memoirs:

Among the Frenchmen with whom I was intimate there was one from Martinique, very rich and a fop to his fingertips. He had been recommended to one of the leading merchants of Boston, with whom he lived as a son of the house, and one of whose daughters came to be with child by him. He dined with me every Sunday and he made me a hundred offers to induce me to establish myself with him in Martinique; by so doing he thought to hold me.

One day, with tears in his eyes, he confessed the whole secret to me and besought me, with promises of making my fortune, to compound remedies to produce a miscarriage for the girl; otherwise he was going to depart and he would be the unhappiest man in the world. ‘I believe it,’ said I. ‘ I think a great deal of you, but you must know that I was born a gentleman and that I am incapable of committing a crime. It would be a fine thing for me to have gone from France to England, and from England to Canada, to come from Canada to get myself hanged in Boston! For every other service, be it honorable and proper, I am ready.

'Since the fault is committed, this is my counsel: either marry the girl at once or depart secretly by the first ship that sails.’ ‘ And I am going to take the latter course,’ he exclaimed. ‘ Never would her father or mine, for reasons of religion, consent to our marriage.’ A week later I learned that he had gone. And, however, though he was no longer there, ten days or a fortnight after that a newly born baby was found one morning in the middle of the street opposite the house of the merchant. I had no doubts concerning the mystery, but it was not for me to speak.

The orphan child would most likely have been taken in by the city's almshouse and adopted out. Children were valued for their labor in the 1780s, and could be adopted into families in and around Boston.

Laterrière, meanwhile, finished his education, left New England and returned to Canada. He practiced medicine until 1810 and died in 1815.

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