COUTURE, JOSEPH-ALPHONSE, veterinarian, professor, school administrator, office holder, lecturer, and author; b. 15 Dec. 1850 in Sainte-Claire, Lower Canada, son of Joseph Couture, a shoemaker, and Delphine Roy; m. 12 Aug. 1873 Agnès Ledoux in Montreal, and they had three sons and three daughters; d. 12 March 1922 at Quebec.
After studying at the Petit Séminaire de Sainte-Thérèse, Joseph-Alphonse Couture enrolled in the School of Military Instruction of Montreal. He joined the Canadian militia in 1866 and took part in the campaign to drive back the Fenians. Encouraged by the ultramontane zeal of Bishop Ignace Bourget*, he left Canada in February 1868 with the first detachment of Papal Zouaves to lend support to Pope Pius IX.
On his return in 1870, Couture began studying veterinary medicine at the Montreal Veterinary College, where he took courses conducted in English by Duncan McNab McEachran, a Scottish professor trained at Edinburgh Veterinary College. The rigorous three-year program of studies, taught jointly by the faculty of medicine of McGill College and the Montreal Veterinary College, compared favourably with that of the best veterinary schools in North America. The curriculum included anatomy, dissection, therapeutics, medicine, surgery, and veterinary obstetrics. Visits were organized to large stables and butcher shops in the city, as were shifts on duty at the college dispensary. Pathologic and microscopic demonstrations by Dr William Osler* rounded out a sound theoretical and practical training. In 1873 Couture received his diploma in veterinary medicine, which was raised to a doctorate in 1890, after the college became the faculty of comparative medicine and veterinary science of McGill University.
In 1877, through a grant from the provincial government, McEachran created a French-language teaching section within the Montreal Veterinary College. He reached an agreement with the Montreal School of Medicine and Surgery – then affiliated with Victoria College in Cobourg, Ont. – by which the school assumed responsibility for the teaching of medicine, and he hired the first Canadian francophone veterinarians, Orphir Bruneau, Couture, and later Victor-Théodule Daubigny*, to teach part of the course in veterinary medicine. In addition to helping McEachran and Osler with their research into different types of animal pathology (actinomycosis, bovine pleuropneumonia), Couture taught materia medica, ran the anatomy demonstrations, and maintained his own veterinary office. He would serve on the board of examiners of the college for more than 20 years. Courses in the francophone section would continue until 1885, but Couture stopped teaching there in 1880, having accepted the year before a position as inspector at the animal quarantine station in Lévis, which was the largest animal transfer station in Canada.
In 1875, at a request of the federal government made in response to increased transatlantic commercial traffic with the British Isles, McEachran had helped organize the first system in Canada for the quarantine and isolation of livestock. The object was to prevent animals infected with contagious diseases from entering the country. In his capacity as a full-time inspector (a position he would retain for the rest of his life), Couture annually saw 600 to 1,200 of the finest specimens of improved breeds (cattle, horses, swine, and sheep), new successes from European breeders achieved by cross-breeding and selection. Thousands of animals purchased by wealthy livestock importers from Quebec, Ontario, and the new western territories (John Henry Pope* and Matthew Henry Cochrane*, among others) were examined by Couture, who thus had an opportunity to compare their respective qualities. In the light of this experience, he would become a promoter of livestock farming based on the purity of animal breeds; in other words, he would favour selection, as opposed to cross-breeding.
Taking advantage of the demand for practising veterinarians, Couture found the support necessary to establish the first francophone school of veterinary medicine in Canada, the École Vétérinaire de Québec, in 1885. The provincial Department of Agriculture and Public Works gave financial assistance (an annual grant of $2,000), and affiliation with the Université Laval at Quebec provided for medical training, institutional recognition, and the conferring of diplomas. Located on Rue des Jardins, the school took as its model the Montreal Veterinary College: high admission standards (“the equivalent of a good and complete commercial or industrial course,” according to the university’s calendar), a three-year course of studies, and full medical and veterinary training split between a specialized school and a school of advanced studies. The program included general pathology, veterinary medical and surgical pathology, veterinary materia medica, chemistry, histology, botany, practical anatomy, comparative anatomy of domestic animals, rudiments of entozoology, physiology, and veterinary clinical practice. In addition, a small hospital for horses, which was in an annex to the school, served both as a clinic for the students and as a horse treatment centre for the Upper Town. In 1887 Ernest F. J. MacKay, who had earlier completed a year of studies at the francophone section of the Montreal Veterinary College, received the first diploma granted by the École Vétérinaire de Québec.
For nine years Couture would keep the institution at arm’s length. As early as 1889 financial misunderstandings with the administration of the Université Laval occasioned friction. The small enrolment (only 13 graduates from its founding to 1894) touched off a debate between Couture and his associates (the provincial department and the university). Unfortunately these discussions made no mention of the high quality of instruction provided by Couture and his assistants, Dr Peter H. Cummins and Dr John Duncan DuChene; for example, they boldly included courses in hygiene, the inspection of milk and meat, and even microbiology in a regular curriculum in itself marked by the use of the anatomical and clinical method. The government withdrew its grant in 1893 and chose instead to concentrate its financial assistance on the new École de Médecine Comparée et de Science Vétérinaire de Montréal. This institution had resulted from the merger of the École de Médecine Vétérinaire Française de Montréal (founded in 1885 by Daubigny and Bruneau and affiliated with the Montreal School of Medicine and Surgery) and the École Vétérinaire Française de Montréal (founded in 1886 by Daubigny and others and affiliated with the Université Laval). The new school would move to the Institut Agricole d’Oka in 1928 and to Saint-Hyacinthe in 1947; in 1969 it would become the faculty of veterinary medicine of the Université de Montréal. Couture assumed the operating costs for a year before closing his school in 1894.
Along with his duties as inspector and professor, Couture served as the first official government veterinarian of the province of Quebec from 1884 to 1895. As part of his responsibility, he had to arrange for the sanitary inspection of the Dominion Vaccine Establishment at Sainte-Foy, which was financed by the Department of Agriculture and Public Works and run by Edmond Gauvreau, a professor of hygiene at the Université Laval and the École Vétérinaire de Québec. This establishment was in fact a farm created for the express purpose of providing smallpox vaccine of a high quality to doctors who requested it. A mild form of the virus, also called vaccine or cowpox, was taken from the pustules that formed on a previously inoculated cow. Couture was responsible for examining these virus-producing animals, which had to be completely free of infectious diseases such as the tuberculosis that was then prevalent.
As the official veterinarian, Couture also emphasized the importance of actively combating contagious animal diseases. He advocated sanitary policing measures to prevent the spread of infections and tried to persuade the public authorities to support these measures financially. In 1889, after assessing various epidemics, he called for the adoption of “laws ordering the destruction of animals found [to be] contaminated and contagious,” but without success. In one of his reports to the government, published that year, he wrote of having examined a horse with glanders owned by a dairy farmer who “travelled daily through the busiest parts of Quebec and Lévis and spread contagion.” In 1890, inspired by Pasteur’s work on anthrax, Couture proposed that animals be vaccinated with samples of a mild anthrax virus, which he himself ordered from the Institut Pasteur in Paris and experimented with at the clinic of the École Vétérinaire de Québec. In 1893 he suggested setting up a “laboratory-warehouse” where various preventive inoculations would be made available to veterinarians. Unfortunately no systematic inoculation program would be in effect until the 1920s.
From 1888 Couture regularly recommended government participation in the fight against infectious diseases that could be transmitted from animals to humans. He and McEachran made known that milk for human consumption could act as a vector for transmitting bovine tuberculosis to humans. A lengthy scientific, social, and economic debate ensued in the province. In 1893, only three years after the discovery of tuberculin by the team working with German scientist Robert Koch, Couture recommended tuberculin testing of all cattle. The skin test made it possible to detect tuberculosis in dairy herds whose milk was endangering the lives of consumers with fragile immune systems, such as children and the indigent. Once Couture had raised the question, it would be debated for a long time. Pasteurization of milk would not be carried out systematically in Quebec until the 1930s.
In 1885 Couture served as secretary to a commission (which also included Édouard-André Barnard*, an agronomist, and Siméon Le Sage*, a civil servant) that was appointed at the request of the Council of Agriculture of the Province of Quebec to study the “Canadian cow.” At a time when the dairy industry was becoming the focus of agriculture, much consideration was devoted to this topic. While recognizing the morphological weaknesses of this breed of cattle, including its small size, Couture took a stand, as the official government veterinarian, against the members of the Council of Agriculture, who were powerful promoters of imported dairy breeds from England and Holland, such as Ayrshires and Holsteins. He spelled out the main physical characteristics of the breed, which had probably come from France in the 17th century. It was hardy, black and tawny in colour, and easy to feed. It required little care and came from the same stock as the Jersey and Guernsey breeds. In 1886 the commission opened a genealogical book (the herd-book or register of the best animals available for breeding). Couture also conducted studies on milk productivity which showed that the very low cost of production and the high fat and protein content of milk from the Canadian cow might prove beneficial to the rapidly growing butter industry. In this debate Couture took the position that it was better to improve an existing breed (through reproduction, selection, appropriate maintenance and care, and sometimes even cross-breeding) than to advance risk capital for the purchase of a new herd. In spite of opposition, Couture and his allies succeeded in putting across their point of view: “Noireaude,” the Canadian cow, would graze in a large proportion of Quebec meadows until the mid 20th century, and it was still found at the beginning of the 21st century in some parts of the province.
In 1884 Couture began the same kind of crusade in favour of the “Canadian horse.” After discovering, in his capacity as official government veterinarian, that the breed was nearly extinct – through cross-breeding and sales to the United States after the Civil War of the 1860s – he obtained backing from promoters interested in ensuring its survival. Once again, he spelled out the specific characteristics, collected some animals suitable for breeding, and obtained government recognition of the genealogical book (the stud-book). In 1895 he was one of the principal founders of the Société Générale des Éleveurs d’Animaux de Race Pure de la Province de Québec, and he would serve as its secretary for the rest of his life. An affiliated society, the Société des Éleveurs de Chevaux Canadiens, ensured into the 21st century the survival of this small, sturdy, multi-purpose horse, which is well adapted to cold climates.
Couture also contributed to the literature on animal husbandry and animal pathology. In 1882 he published at Quebec Traité sur l’élevage et les maladies des bestiaux. Reissued two years later, this volume seems to have been the first work in French Canada directly related to these topics. Between 1890 and 1895 Couture wrote several popular scientific articles useful to farmers for Le Journal d’agriculture illustré, a periodical published in Montreal; these writings, which were sometimes awkward in style, dealt with the health of animals. From 1882 to 1900 Couture was also agriculture editor of Le Progrès du Saguenay (Chicoutimi). For the members of the Industrial Dairy Society of the Province of Quebec, he provided some ten scientific papers on ways of raising dairy cattle. During the 1890s he regularly participated in lecture tours organized by agronomists in the Department of Agriculture and Public Works for parish farm clubs. At the end of the 19th century Couture belonged to a new group, consisting of specialists on agrarian questions whose views were moderately nationalistic, progressive, and open to the world, and who wanted to modernize the way farming practices were shaped. Their method of disseminating information, which was intended for large producers as well as small farmers, was both elitist and popular.
Couture had quickly become one of the prominent citizens of Quebec and he took an active part in the city’s social life. A friend and colleague of Édouard-André Barnard and Jules-Paul Tardivel*, he wrote several columns, under the pseudonym Jérôme Aubry, for the newspaper La Vérité, in which, in particular, he supported the anti-imperialist campaign then being conducted. He also participated in discussions organized by the Institut Canadien de Québec. In 1892 he was one of the founders, along with Abbé Théophile Montminy*, Jean-Charles Chapais, and Barnard, of the Syndicat des Cultivateurs, and he served as its first secretary. This was the first attempt to bring together the farmers who belonged to the province’s farm clubs. He was also a shareholder (1897–1914) and director (1900–14) of the Chicoutimi Pulp Company [see Joseph-Dominique Guay].
Couture left his mark on the history of veterinary medicine in the province of Quebec by founding a veterinary school and by his involvement in the system of animal quarantine. Clearly, however, his contribution goes well beyond these two aspects. He was one of the first formally trained veterinarians, the men who, by taking an interest in animal pathology, contributed to the revival of agriculture in the areas of dairy farming and livestock breeding. He was a founder of the Montreal Veterinary Surgeons Association in 1875, and the first vice-president of the Association Médicale Vétérinaire Française, which began in 1886, but his high profile in public life was his chief contribution to advancing the rights and professional interests of veterinarians. Although he was a frequent critic of charlatanism, his complaints did not strike a chord in a society where quack and blacksmith were important figures.
Joseph-Alphonse Couture was very active for the last 20 years of the 19th century and he influenced not only the veterinary profession but the entire field of agriculture in the province of Quebec. He helped modernize farming practices by encouraging the adoption of new methods of livestock breeding focused on reproduction and on the special care to be given the animals. He favoured zootechnical development adapted to the available resources. He also worked to ensure constant improvement in the quality of herds by disseminating scientific research that showed the way in his time and he carried on the fight against animal diseases that can be transmitted to humans.
Joseph-Alphonse Couture is also the author of Choix des vaches laitières d’après le système Guenon (Québec, 1884), Précis de médecine vétérinaire à l’usage des cultivateurs (Québec, 1895), and Le bétail canadien (Québec, [1900?]). In addition to contributing to several periodicals, as mentioned in the text, Couture gave three lectures: “Physiologie de la digestion,” “Physiologie de la lactation et production du lait,” and “La race bovine canadienne.” These were published in the reports of the Industrial Dairy Society of the Province of Quebec, respectively in 1888, 1890, and 1893.
The following sources provide the most information: Le Soleil, 22 juin 1901, 13 mars 1922; Can., Parl., Sessional papers, reports of the minister of agriculture, 1874-1910; Que., Parl., Sessional papers, reports of the commissioner of agriculture and public works (commissioner of agriculture and colonization; commissioner of agriculture), 1872-1904; Soc. d’Industrie Laitière de la Prov. de Québec, Rapport (Québec), 1882-1906. ANQ-M, CE601-S1, 12 août 1873. ANQ-Q, CE306-S6, 15 déc. 1850. L’Action catholique (Québec), 14 mars 1922. Le Devoir, 14, 16, 27 mars 1922. Denis Goulet et André Paradis, Trois siècles d’histoire médicale au Québec; chronologie des institutions et des pratiques (1639-1939) (Montréal, 1992). René Hardy, Les Zouaves: une stratégie du clergé québécois au XIXe siècle (Montréal, 1980). Bruno Jean, Les idéologies éducatives agricoles (1860-1890) et l’origine de l’agronomie québécoise (Québec, 1977). Firmin Létourneau, Histoire de l’agriculture (Canada français) ([Montréal], 1950). Michel Pepin, Histoire et petites histoires des vétérinaires du Québec ([Montréal], 1986). M.-A. Perron, Un grand éducateur agricole: Édouard-A. Barnard, 1835-1898; étude historique sur l’agriculture de 1760 à 1900 ([Montréal], 1955). J. F. Smithcors, The veterinarian in America, 1625-1975 (Santa Barbara, Calif., 1975). P. M. Teigen, “The establishment of the Montreal Veterinary College, 1866/67-1874/75,” Canadian Veterinary Journal (Ottawa), 29 (1988): 185-89.