DUCHAÎNE, AMABLE-DANIEL, educator, scientist, inventor, and author; b. 27 May 1774 in Yamachiche, Que., son of Jean-Baptiste Duchaîne, a seigneur, and Marie Paquin; d. 14 Nov. 1853 in Montreal.
Amable-Daniel Duchaîne was related, on his father’s side, to the Lesieur-Duchêne (Duchaîne) family that towards the end of the 18th century had inherited part of Grosbois seigneury near Trois-Rivières. He received a classical education at the Collège Saint-Raphaël in Montreal from 1792 to 1800. His scientific bent was encouraged when science began to be taught there towards the turn of the century by the French Sulpicians Claude Rivière, Jean-Baptiste-Jacques Chicoisneau*, and Antoine-Jacques Houdet*, who brought from Europe works on physics, chemistry, mathematics, electricity, and the natural sciences. On leaving the college Duchaîne started his theology, and he was tonsured by Pierre Denaut*, the bishop of Quebec, on 23 Sept. 1800. He was never ordained priest, but because he continued to wear a cassock and bands people became accustomed to calling him Abbé Duchaîne. From 1804 to 1806 Duchaîne taught with Jean-Baptiste Roupe in a Latin school in Nicolet which had been opened in 1803 by its priest, Alexis-Basile Durocher, and he may have continued his theological studies as well. In 1806 this school became a classical college, but Duchaîne is not listed among its first teachers.
Nothing further is known of Duchaîne’s career until 1821. That year he drafted a plan for elementary education and a prospectus for a university, securing approval for his proposals from several people whose names he did not disclose. In his scheme Duchaîne made a distinction between general education for those who would become farmers, artisans, and labourers, and comprehensive education for those preparing to take up public office or a profession. For general education he outlined a primary program of instruction in French, English, religion, sacred and secular history, geography, arithmetic, and science. In addition to covering these subjects, his comprehensive education provided a classical program, without Latin except for those who would need it; it included jurisprudence and the study of the country’s laws, as well as all branches of philosophy and science, their enumeration displaying his erudition. What Duchaîne had in mind was a university. This university, located in a small town or in the countryside, would not be a residential institution; the students would be housed with local people, and the neediest would receive free instruction. Under the patronage of the government, which would provide financial assistance, and that of friends of education, who would become subscribers, the university would be directed by a corporation consisting of the principal, professors, prominent persons, and priests and ministers of the various creeds, with no restrictions being placed on either professors or students. In this respect, the institution resembled the military school that Captain Anthony Gilbert Douglas had wanted to set up at Trois-Rivières some years earlier. But if the diverse religious and cultural elements could not coexist, there would be two universities, one for French Canadians and the other for English Canadians. Duchaîne’s proposals constituted a criticism of the teaching given in the classical colleges and of the physical, intellectual, and religious constraints placed on their students.
In 1837 Duchaîne had this plan printed in booklet form. The publication was roundly denounced that same year by someone he identified as a schoolteacher of foreign origin acting as spokesman for a clerical clique. He republished the plan in L’Aurore des Canadas in 1841 and L’Encyclopédie canadienne in 1843, and in the latter year Michel Bibaud also expressed some reservations about it.
In the 1820s Duchaîne, according to contemporaries, had taught theology in Upper Canada and appears to have had some connection with Iona College in St Raphael (St Raphael West); outside the classroom he concentrated his attention on the exact sciences. Around 1830 he was in Montreal and made the acquaintance of Pierre Beaudry, a manufacturer producing soap, pearl ash, and candles on a large scale. Beaudry turned Duchaîne’s scientific knowledge to such good account that in return he gave him free accommodation in two furnished rooms in one of his houses and by his will in 1843 ensured Duchaîne possession of them for the remainder of his life. There Duchaîne gave private courses to pupils, and translated and wrote texts on grammar, belles-lettres, history, logic, mathematics, and physics. During this period he worked for La Minerve, preparing the astronomical calculations and tables required for a calendar that was the first of its kind in the French language to be published in Lower Canada; for several years he also drafted an almanac. In January 1832 he discovered a new method of building wooden bridges; by being supported only at the ends, they would withstand flood waters, violent currents, and the spring break-up. The government of Lower Canada granted him letters patent for and exclusive rights to his invention, which probably represented another source of income for him.
In the same month Bishop Bernard-Claude Panet* of Quebec informed Bishop Jean-Jacques Lartigue*, his assistant in the district of Montreal, that he would not ordain Duchaîne priest. Noting that “this abbé is 58 years old,” Panet asserted, “he will soon be unfit and can only be a burden to the bishops.” Duchaîne later remarked, “If I have not done [religion] greater service, everyone knows well that it has not been my fault, and that it is because human injustice has stood in my way.”
In 1837 Duchaîne published an article on lightning-rods and how to install them. The article, which appeared in various journals and then in the Mélanges religieux in 1841, provoked a brief controversy. Following Benjamin Franklin, Duchaîne asserted that the tip of a lightning-rod drew the electric “fluid” from the clouds. Under the pseudonym of Un Ami des Sciences, Isaac-Stanislas Lesieur-Désaulniers* retorted, on the authority of François Arago, that being charged with electricity from the ground the tip of the lightning-rod instead neutralized the electricity of the clouds. Jean-Baptiste Meilleur*, who had become a friend of Duchaîne, joined in the argument with another theory based on Newton’s laws. Lesieur-Désaulniers, the only real physicist of the three, ridiculed this view. Duchaîne snapped back: “To keep abreast of one’s time, there is no need to pour scorn on the theories of past ages, to adopt without due consideration, out of love of novelty or as a fad, every conceivable new hypothesis and theory. . . . Besides, it is a known fact in this country and even in foreign countries that I have made many discoveries not previously known in this century; I am therefore a little ahead of my time.” Duchaîne, whose encyclopaedic but superficial and outdated knowledge dazzled his contemporaries, was nothing if not conceited.
Amable-Daniel Duchaîne continued to teach with indisputable success for a few more years, but he was apparently confined to his house by illness from around 1845. Pierre Duchaîne, a relative, ran errands for him and helped him in several other ways. He was in straitened circumstances at the end of his life, and died on 14 Nov. 1853, at the age of 79, in the Hospice Saint-Joseph run by the Sisters of Charity of Providence. The parish records of Notre-Dame in Montreal mention that he was buried in the ruins of the cathedral of Saint-Jacques, which had been destroyed during the great fire of 1852. The inventory of his possessions after his death shows that he owned a library of about 250 volumes; it was well stocked in works on theology, as compared with some 30 volumes closely or distantly related to science. His friend Meilleur declared that his literary writings were “numerous and long-winded.”
AAQ, 12 A, F, f.56. ACAM, 450.904; RLL, V: 218–20; VI: 204; XV: 4–6. ANQ-M, CE1-51, 16 nov. 1853; CN1-32, 4 sept. 1843. AP, Sainte-Anne (Yamachiche), Reg. des baptêmes, mariages et sépultures, 27 mai 1774. L’Aurore des Canadas (Montréal), 28 août 1841. L’Encyclopédie canadienne (Montréal), janv.–févr. 1843. Mélanges religieux, 16 juill., 6, 13, 20 août 1841. La Minerve, 30 janv. 1832, 17 juill. 1837, 15 nov. 1853. Allaire, Dictionnaire, 1: 183. F.-M. Bibaud, Le Panthéon canadien (A. et V. Bibaud; 1891). Morgan, Sketches of celebrated Canadians, 422. J.-G. Barthe, Le Canada reconquis par la France (Paris, 1855), 289. Hector Berthelot, Montréal, le bon vieux temps, É.-Z. Massicotte, compil. (2v. en 1, 2e éd., Montréal, 1924), 2: 121. Napoléon Caron, Histoire de la paroisse d’Yamachiche (précis historique) (Trois-Rivières, Qué., 1892). Choquette, Hist. du séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe. Douville, Hist. du collège-séminaire de Nicolet, vol.2. Lionel Groulx, L’enseignement français au Canada (2v., Montréal, 1931–), 1: 152, 270. Maurault, Le collège de Montréal (Dansereau; 1967). Meilleur, Mémorial de l’éducation (1876). L. K. Shook, Catholic post-secondary education in English-speaking Canada: a history (Toronto, 1971), 18. É.-Z. Massicotte, “L’industriel Beaudry et le savant Duchaîne,” BRH, 47 (1941): 156–58.