COMPAIN, PIERRE-JOSEPH, Roman Catholic priest and doctor; b. 11 April 1740 in Montreal (Que.), son of Pierre Compain, dit L’Espérance, a barber and wig maker, and Françoise Vacher; brother of Marie-Louise Compain, named Saint-Augustin; d. 21 April 1806 in Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieu, Lower Canada.
Pierre-Joseph Compain was able to leave Montreal and begin studies at the Séminaire de Québec in the autumn of 1754, probably through the influence of the priests of the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice in Montreal, where his father was barber. The siege of Quebec by the British in 1759 forced him to cut short his senior year (Rhetoric) and return to Montreal. For a few years he studied surgery there, under Charles-Elemy-Joseph-Alexandre-Ferdinand Feltz*, but he apparently remained undecided about his future. On 27 July 1766, at Rivière-du-Loup (Louiseville), he married Geneviève Arseneau, who died within a few months. During this brief period Compain was engaged in commerce. In October 1768, having been a widower for two years, he resumed his studies at the Séminaire de Québec. On 3 July 1774, at the age of 34, he was ordained priest by Bishop Briand*.
Since the Canadian church was faced with a shortage of priests at this time, Compain was often obliged to minister to several parishes. He began as curate at Saint-Pierre, Île d’Orléans, with responsibility also for Saint-Laurent. Scarcely a year after his ordination he became parish priest of he aux Coudres. From 1775 to 1788 he served as pastor on that island and over an immense territory stretching from Les Éboulements through La Malbaie to Tadoussac. A legend was born at this period which would be recounted by the local Indians more than a century after Compain’s death. In the night of 11 April 1782 the Jesuit Jean-Baptiste de La Brosse* died at Tadoussac. At that moment, according to the tradition, the bells of all the churches on the north shore of the St Lawrence, including those on he aux Coudres, spontaneously tolled the knell. Convinced that his colleague had died, Compain set out in a canoe, and despite the ice floes still adrift on the river he covered nearly 50 miles to conduct the missionary’s funeral.
Eager for harmony in his flock, Compain often acted as adviser or mediator to the habitants. Along with others he bitterly attacked the militia captain of Île aux Coudres, Zacharie Hervé – who had refused his counsel – calling him a swine, a drunkard “who judges his cases only in the canteen and only when the parties have him drink his fill.” In September 1788, on the orders of his bishop and against his own wishes, he had to leave his parishioners. He became parish priest of Saint-Étienne at Beaumont, where he served until November 1798. Then another appointment took him to Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieu.
The clerical state did not prevent Compain from practising medicine. Like Louis-Nicolas Landriaux*, Compain learned from Surgeon-Major Feltz a cure for cankers, which were a common malady at that time. The secret was to make his reputation. In February 1794 he announced in the Quebec Gazette that “having found out the true secret of curing Cancers by causing them to fall off without cutting them,” he was advising afflicted persons that they might “confidently apply to him and expect to be treated with the charitable attention which that malady requires.” Compain’s therapy consisted of bleeding and purging the patient, applying to the canker a poultice of ground oats passed through a sieve and moistened with a few drops of water, and then covering it with a cobweb. This remedy may not have had all the efficacy attributed to it, but some doctors believed in it. Consequently in 1796 George Longmore, a Quebec surgeon, contracted to share Compain’s secret and to pay him £529 for the right to use it. The parties agreed that in the event of Longmore’s death the secret would be passed on to Dr John Mervin Nooth*, who concurred with this arrangement. On 29 Aug. 1798, however, Compain and Longmore modified their contract [see George Longmore]. In February of the following year Compain, “desirous of relinquishing of the care of curing Cancers,” passed his secret on to the nuns of the Hôtel-Dieu in Quebec and in Montreal as well as to the Ursulines of Trois-Rivières. In return he asked them to make a communion every month for his health and not to divulge the prescription for the famous remedy before his death. The existence of the remedy was so widely famed, and it was so favourably regarded, that as late as 1855 Dr Joseph Painchaud* reported he had used it successfully in treating facial cancers.
Pierre-Joseph Compain evidently had some degree of culture, for he possessed a fairly large personal library. After his death 189 volumes were bequeathed to the newly founded Séminaire de Nicolet.
AAQ, 12 A, C: f.127; 20 A, II: 95; 210 A, IV: f.214; V: f.169; 22 A, V: f.431. ANQ-M, CE1-13, 22 avril 1806; CE1-51, 11 avril 1740; CN1-255, 21 août 1795; CN2-11, 10, 21 avril, 16, 20 mai, 2 sept. 1806. ANQ-MBF, CN1-80, 26 juill. 1766. ANQ-Q, CN1-92, 27 juin 1796. Arch. de la chancellerie de l’évêché de La Pocatière (La Pocatière, Qué.), Île aux Coudres, I, 3: 10 sept. 1788. Arch. des Religieuses hospitalières de Saint-Joseph (Montréal), Vie religieuse de la communauté, délibérations capitulaires, 25 févr. 1799. ASQ, mss, 431: 274. AUM, P 58, U, Compain à Baby, 23 mars 1777, 20 sept. 1787. BL, Add. mss 21724:31 (mfm. at PAC). PAC, MG 11, [CO 42] Q, 84: 160–67. Le Canadien, 15 janv. 1855. Quebec Gazette, 20 May 1790, 6 Feb. 1794, 28 Feb. 1799. Alexis Mailloux, Histoire de l’Île-aux-Coudres depuis son établissement jusqu’à nos jours, avec ses traditions, ses légendes, ses coutumes (Montréal, 1879). P.-G. Roy, À travers l’histoire de Beaumont (Lévis, Qué., 1943), 161–62. “Le remède de M. Compain pour le cancer,” BRH, 12 (1906): 23–24. René Bélanger, “L’abbé Pierre-Joseph Compain, prêtre et médecin, 1740–1806,” Saguenayensia (Chicoutimi, Qué.), 13 (1971): 106–7; “Les prêtres séculiers du diocèse de Québec, missionnaires au Domaine du roi et dans la seigneurie de Mingan, de 1769 à 1845,” SCHÉC Rapport, 23 (1955–56): 15. Gabriel Nadeau, “La bufothérapie sous le Régime français; Mme d’Youville et ses crapauds,” L’Union médicale du Canada (Montréal), 73 (1944): 917–28; “Un savant anglais à Québec à la fin du XVIIIe siècle: le docteur John-Mervin Nooth,” L’Union médicale du Canada, 74 (1945): 49–74.