ODET D’ORSONNENS, THOMAS-EDMOND D’, physician, professor, educational administrator, and editor; b. 30 Oct. 1818 in Saint-Roch-de-l’Achigan, Lower Canada, son of Protais d’Odet d’Orsonnens and Louise-Sophie Rocher; m. first 22 Feb. 1841 Marie-Louise-Adeline Dorval in L’Assomption, and they had seven children; m. secondly 20 July 1886 Marie-Salomée Poirier in the cathedral of Saint-Jacques in Montreal; d. 7 Oct. 1892 in Joliette and was buried 11 October in the Côte-des-Neiges Cemetery in Montreal.
Thomas-Edmond d’Odet d’Orsonnens was the eldest son of a Swiss officer who came to the Canadas in 1813 with De Meuron’s Regiment and later became a farmer. He went to school in the village where he was born and then, attracted to medicine, he became, as was customary, a clerk to a physician. He was licensed to practise on 24 Sept. 1841.
D’Odet d’Orsonnens took up his profession in Joliette, where he excelled as an accoucheur, but moved to Montreal in 1845 to continue his career. Four years later he became professor of obstetrics at the Montreal School of Medicine and Surgery, where he also taught chemistry, toxicology, and materia medica (the art of healing by medication), as well as diseases of women and children. He became a member of the school’s council in 1850 and in 1872 he negotiated on its behalf the purchase of a lot opposite the Hôtel-Dieu as a site for the school’s headquarters. In addition, that year he was one of the founders of the Medical Union of Canada.
Thanks to his administrative ability, d’Odet d’Orsonnens held the positions of secretary (1878–80) and president (1880–87) of the medical school. These duties brought him to the fore as a protagonist in the conflict between the Montreal school and the Université Laval at Quebec that went on from 1876 to 1891, in the context of the dispute over the establishment of universities in the two cities [see Ignace Bourget*; Joseph Desautels*].
As a result of a papal decree dated 1 Feb. 1876 the Université Laval had opened a campus in Montreal, which was inaugurated on 6 Jan. 1878. At the time its medical faculty was being set up, Laval could not fail to take cognizance of the school of medicine and surgery, for it not only had been providing medical training for 30 years but also met the requirements of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Province of Quebec: affiliation with a university (Victoria College in Cobourg, Upper Canada, from 1866) [see Hector Peltier*] and access to a general hospital (the Hôtel-Dieu at Montreal from 1850). The school’s professors requested that their autonomy and status be respected in the new institution, and one of them, d’Odet d’Orsonnens, sat on its council as secretary. The agreement was short-lived, however, and by June 1879 the break was complete: the two establishments began operating separately.
D’Odet d’Orsonnens and most of his colleagues remained faithful to their school. Anxious to preserve its autonomy and unable to get a hearing from the bishops, the professors decided to approach the Holy See. Their mission was entrusted to d’Odet d’Orsonnens, who went to Rome at the beginning of 1880. He was granted an audience by Pius IX, who made him a knight of the Order of St Gregory the Great. In July he went to London to consult the solicitor general, Sir Farrer Herschell, about the legal status of the Laval campus in Montreal. According to this jurist, the charter of the Université Laval provided no authority for opening a branch campus, and the only possible form of union it could have with the Montreal institutions was affiliation. The professors decided to bring their case before the courts, but the rector of Laval, Michel-Édouard Méthot, countered by asking Premier Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau for amendments to the charter enabling the university to have more teaching chairs in the province. The Legislative Assembly passed the bill in 1881, not without pressure from bishops on some of its members.
The school’s position became precarious in 1883, for Rome demanded not only an end to all attacks on Laval and its Montreal campus, but support for the new branch. To help implement the papal decree, Archbishop Elzéar-Alexandre Taschereau of Quebec ordered the professors at the school to disaffiliate with Victoria College on pain of excommunication, arguing that the link with a Methodist university constituted a danger for Catholics. He also ordered the nuns at the Hôtel-Dieu to deny the use of their hospital to the school’s physicians. Two of them, d’Odet d’Orsonnens and Joseph Emery-Coderre*, were assured by Bishop Édouard-Charles Fabre of Montreal that the break with Victoria would secure their continued access to the Hôtel-Dieu. However, the bishop immediately changed his mind. Confronted with his about-turn, the doctors, who had made moral and financial commitments on behalf of the school and were unwilling, to let it die, decided to persist. They sent Dr Louis-Édouard Desjardins* to Rome to plead their case.
On 25 Aug. 1883 d’Odet d’Orsonnens received from Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni the cablegram that saved the school. A few days later he, Bishop Fabre, and Emery-Coderre issued a joint statement announcing the reopening of its classes. There was only one difficulty: the bishops’ refusal to recognize it as Catholic left lingering doubts. For several more years there were moves, attempts at rapprochement, and skirmishes between the two medical schools.
Leo XIII’s bull Jamdudum, published in February 1889, aroused new hopes. Granted a degree of autonomy, the branch campus was placed under the jurisdiction of the bishops of the ecclesiastical province of Montreal, who were given the right to appoint the vice-rector. Abbé Jean-Baptiste Proulx*, dit Clément, was named to the position and wanted at first to merge the two medical schools. Well known for his moderate outlook, d’Odet d’Orsonnens served as one of the three representatives of the Montreal School of Medicine in discussions with the Université Laval. Opposition from die-hards on both sides had to be overcome. In the end, a bill sponsored by Premier Honoré Mercier to amend the school’s charter, which served as the basis for the constitution of the new combined medical faculty, was passed unanimously on 29 Nov. 1890, and the union took effect on 1 July 1891.
The school of medicine and surgery, which retained its autonomy, rights, and privileges, thus became the faculty of medicine of the Université Laval at Montreal, and its professors, along with those of the branch campus, became members of the new body. The dean of the medical profession, Thomas-Edmond d’Odet d’Orsonnens, who had been a dominant figure at the school of medicine and a courageous, dignified, and courteous author of the agreement, delivered the address at the official inauguration of the faculty on 5 Oct. 1891. Having received the congratulations of his colleagues on his completion of 50 years in medical practice, he retired to Joliette, where he died the following year.
Thomas-Edmond d’Odet d’Orsonnens was the founder and editor of L’Abeille médicale, the journal of the Montreal School of Medicine and Surgery, published monthly from 1879 to 1882. He contributed a number of scientific articles and made use of the journal to defend the school’s status in the university dispute.
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