Dr. Dominique-Jean Larrey

Surgeon-in-Chief of Napoleon’s Army



Dr. Larrey, the chief surgeon of Napoleon's army

Professor Moshe Feinsod, head of the neurology division at the Ramban Hospital in Haifa, has published two appreciative articles of Dr. Larrey. In the first, he relates the tale of two soldiers who were accused of inflicting wounds on themselves to avoid fighting, and whom Larrey saved from execution. In the other, he chronicles Larrey’s impressions when, for the first time, he assisted a colleague, Dr. Luigi Galvini, with an amputation.


Dr. Feinsod is fascinated by three things: Larrey’s devotion to the wounded, his moral fibre and his constant desire to learn more. His methods are still taught today and he remains a model of devotion to humanitarian principles.


Larrey writes, "It is not up to the surgeon to determine whether a wound is self-inflicted. That role belongs to a judge. A doctor must be his patient’s friend. He must look after both the guilty and the innocent and concentrate his efforts solely on the injury. The rest is not its business."


Born into a rich family from the Pyrenees region, Larrey completed his studies ten years before the French Revolution. He specialized in surgery and initially served in the navy. He took part in the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. He was then called up for military service to defend the Republic against attacks from the monarchies of Europe that wanted to restore the ancien régime in France.


The very first time that Larrey took part in a battle, he did not wait until the casualties were brought to him at the rear of the field; he flung himself into the fray to help them. After the battle, his superiors criticized his behaviour, but the wounded expressed their gratitude. Later, he created "flying ambulances," that were composed of a doctor, two assistants and a nurse. This medical team provided first aid and had a carriage for the purposes of evacuation. This method, which was revolutionary at that time, saved many soldiers who would previously have suffered for hours, sometimes days on end, without receiving the slightest medical attention.


Larrey continued to improve his methods on a permanent basis. Field doctors and nurses, first-aid stations for the wounded, and campaign hospitals became an standard features on the battlefield. Among other things, Larrey discovered the importance of frequently changing bandages and carefully cleaning wounds. During the Egyptian campaign and in the Holy Land, under the command of General Bonaparte, Larrey instituted the separation of wounded patients from those suffering from a contagious disease. He assembled the sick at the Convent of the Carmelite nuns on the hill of Haifa and the wounded in the fort at Shfaram. The soldiers soon gave him the nickname of the "Saviour."


In the battles of the German campaign of 1807, there were a great number of soldiers suffering from problems with their legs. Napoleon demanded to know the cause. Larrey concluded that the legs of 18-year-old boys were not strong enough to endure long marches. Napoleon deferred the age of conscription to 20.


In 1813, the event occurred that was to immortalize Larrey’s memory. After one battle, officers were claiming that some soldiers had inflicted wounds on their own feet or hands. The marshals wanted to make an example of them. Larrey wrote at once to Napoleon: "You have been misled; these boys are innocent." The men escaped execution.


Larrey admired Napoleon and served him with total devotion; Napoleon, in turn, recognized the doctor’s merit. He said, "If the army ever erects a monument to express its gratitude, it should do so in honor of Larrey."


At the battle of Waterloo, Larrey was taken prisoner by the Prussians, who wanted to execute him. His life was saved by Marshal Blücher, who remembered that Larrey had saved the life of his son by caring for him on a battlefield a few years earlier. This emphasizes another quality of Larrey’s. On the battlefield, he looked after all the casualties, both friend and foe.


Another famous incident took place in 1830, during the Revolution that put an end to the reign of Charles X. Larrey refused to hand over the Swiss to be tried by the insurrectionists. He went before them and exclaimed, "What do you want? My wounded? They are mine; leave them in peace." Recognizing him, the rebels responded by applauding him with the greatest enthusiasm.


There are many historians who credit Larrey for providing the impetus that led to the creation of the International Red Cross (1864) and the Geneva Convention (1949), which, among other things, requires that all wounded enemy soldiers receive medical care and that civilians in occupied territory must be protected.


Larrey’s name is engraved on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but his fame extends well beyond the borders of France. His humane approach still serves a guide to the behaviour of doctors whenever they have to decide between their duty to their patients and pressure from the authorities, in particular, the police or the army.


Professor Feinsod notes that a sick or wounded person may only be tied to a hospital bed as the result of a precise, personal order, and adds his hope that such orders will always be such as to spare the conscience of the doctors.


End of the article by Algazi.




Napoleon had the greatest regard for Larrey, as Las Cases points out in the Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène: "The Emperor had only the highest praise for Dr Larrey, declaring that he left him with the image of a truly good man who combined all the virtues of effective philanthropy and science to the highest degree. Every wounded soldier was a member of his family. Larrey is the most virtuous man I have ever met."