Dr. Jean Ettori: Biochemist, physician, war hero

Posted on Tuesday, March 10, 2020

portrait of Dr. Jean Ettori

“An admirably conscientious and competent medical doctor, he pieced together a regimental medical service in exceptionally difficult circumstances.”

— Croix de Guerre citation


By Kate Jaimet
Senior writer

When Dr. Jean Ettori arrived from Paris in 1949 to lead the University of Ottawa’s Department of Biochemistry, he didn’t balk at the rustic conditions of a medical school housed in old army barracks.  Dr. Ettori had practised medicine in far more spartan circumstances, as a doctor with the Free French Forces in World War II.

“He was deeply religious,” his colleague Dr. Michael Ryan would later say of his decision to accept the position in Ottawa. “He felt it was his duty to help.” 

Jean Ettori was born on February 15, 1901 in Algeria,  then a French colony.  He earned his Doctorate in Medicine from the University of Paris in 1930, and built a career as a researcher and lecturer at the University of Algiers during the 1930s. When war broke out in 1939, he turned to studying poison gas, as chair of medical chemistry in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Algiers.  But he returned to teaching after France capitulated to Nazi Germany in 1940. 

In 1942, when Allied troops liberated Algeria, Dr. Ettori joined the Free French Forces. He served as chief medical officer of the  Zouaves 9th regiment, an African-based fighting force that became part of the  Free French 1st Army under General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. The Zouaves 9th regiment landed in France in September 1944, fought their way northward to Paris, then crossed the Rhine and aided in the conquest of Nazi Germany. 

On April 13, 1945, Dr. Ettori was awarded the “Croix de Guerre avec palme” for his war service. His citation read: 

“An admirably conscientious and competent medical doctor, he pieced together a regimental medical service in exceptionally difficult circumstances.”

After the war, Dr. Ettori became a full professor at the University of Paris. But his nomadic life was not yet over. In 1948, the rector of the University of Ottawa offered him the position of Chair of the Department of Biochemistry at the Faculty of Medicine. He accepted, taking up his duties in September 1949. 

Among colleagues and students in Ottawa, he was known for his erudition, humanitarianism, and deep religious faith.  In 1956, he was named Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by the government of France. In addition to citing his war service, his nomination documents note:

"Mr. Ettori … has acquired the most enviable reputation among both his colleagues, and the numerous students he has trained… His remarkable research activities effectively serve the prestige of French science in Canada.” 

“Life to Jean Ettori was a wonderful gift and in his work he sought answers to the whys and wherefores concerning it,” Dr. William Donnelly wrote in the Ottawa Medical Journal in 1961. “Having endured two world wars, at times tragically, he realized how precious was this gift, to be conserved with all one’s strength.”

Dr. Ettori fell ill in 1960. He returned to Paris, where he died on January 28, 1961. 

A signed letter awarding Dr. Ettori the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur

Dr. Jean Ettori was named Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur in 1956.


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