Michel Sarrazin

Surgeon to Naturalist

Today is the birthday of the first collector and cataloguer of Canadian plant specimens, Naturalist Michel Sarrazin, who was born on this day in 1659.

In France, Sarrazin was trained to be a surgeon. By the age of 25, he was appointed to help the troops headed to colonize Canada. When he arrived in Canada, he tended to both the soldiers and civilians in Québec and Montreal. Helping sick people was dangerous work. In his early thirties, Sarrazin himself became ill, and in short order, he returned to France to receive more training. Sarrazin spent three years in France - obtaining his doctorate of medicine and finding himself spending more and more time at the Botanical Garden in Paris. It wasn't long before he met the nobleman and botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. Tournefort was an excellent teacher. He was the first botanist to develop the idea of creating a genus for plants. Later, Sarrazin would report that it was Tournefort who "stimulated [his] lifelong interest in collecting and classifying [plants]." Rested, educated, and passionate about horticulture, Sarrazin returned to Canada, and he kept in touch with Tournefort through correspondence. He would send back various specimens of North American plants. Tournefort, in turn, would share Sarrazin's discoveries with the Royal Academy of Science back in France.
Sarrazin's most noted discover Sarracenia purpurea, the pitcher plant - which Linneaus would name in his honor. The pitcher plant grew in wetlands, bogs, and marshes around Québec. From a medicinal standpoint, the pitcher plant was discovered to be effective against smallpox. Ever the doctor, Sarrazin, had studied the powerful pitcher plant. Incredibly, it was Michel Sarrazin who first suspected that the plant caught insects and ate them. When he shared his thoughts in writing, the academic community rejected his theory. Nearly 200 years later, Charles Darwin would validate Sarrazin's hypothesis in his work called Insectivorous Plants.
There's a fascinating side-note in the Sarrazin biography; Sarrazin was the first doctor to perform a mastectomy in North America. His patient was a 38-year-old nun, and her prognosis was so grim that Sarrazin was certain she would die without the surgery. Sarrazin acted quickly, the nun recovered and lived a full life until the age of 77.


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Michel Sarrazin
Michel Sarrazin

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