Forgotten doctors of the Empire’s nobility, two exceptional destinies: Girardot and Taillefer

by Xavier Riaud(*), FINS

Henri according to Dupont (1999), Hubert Jules according to Lemaire (2003) Taillefer (1779-1866 according to Dupont (1999), 1869 according to Lemaire (2003))

He started studying surgery at “the Hôtel-Dieu” in Paris. Thirsting for discoveries, he boarded the ship called “Immortalité”. The Englishmen took hold of the craft and captured Taillefer who succeeded in escaping. Back in the French capital, he once again practiced surgery in “the Hôtel-Dieu” for a while. Thristing once again for great trips, he then decided to sail for greener pastures. He travelled throughout the world (Lemaire, 1992). As navy surgeon, he followed Baudin, in his expedition towards southern lands, on board the ship called “Géographe” which left French soil on October 19 1800 for a three-year trip (Dupont, 1999). Back in France, he wished to stay in the navy. In 1804, he officiated as second-class surgeon in the battalion of the Sailors of the Guard who fought in all Napoleon’s campaigns.

The French fleet was destroyed in Aboukir (1798) first of all, then in Trafalgar (1805). The sailors ended up to be landed ashore. Thus, Taillefer went up and down Europe with the Great Army, from Spain to Poland. He became chief surgeon of the Sailors of the Guard in 1809. Furthermore, he was elevated to the rank of Knight of the Empire by Napoleon himself in 1810. He was the only navy doctor to be awarded such an honor throughout the Empire.

As the Emperor greatly appreciated him, he was appointed officer of the Legion of Honor in 1814 while he was operating under enemy fire at Montmirail (Lemaire, 2003).

Taillefer left his position with the rank of first surgeon in second in the Navy under the Restoration. Then he settled in Paris where he finished his career as a local doctor. He died in Paris, in 1866 (according to Dupont (1999)) or in 1869 (according to Lemaire (2003)).

François Girardot (1873-1831)

He was born in 1773, at Semur-en-Auxois. He was the first man to be appointed Baron of the Empire on the battlefield. He was also the only one who, seriously wounded, had his leg amputated.

When he was 18 years old, he was already third-class doctor of the military hospital of Dijon. The revolutionary troubles forced him to emigrate. He left medicine aside and enrolled in “the Armée des Princes” where he was enlisted in the Mirabeau legion. In 1795, he was elevated to the rank of Marshal-of-Lodgings in the hussars of Baschi, then second lieutenant of the noble hunters. In 1802, the army of Condé dissolved, Girardot went back to Paris, his body covered with scars (1793: a bullet in the right shoulder; 1795: a hit with the tip of a sword to the chest; 1799: a bullet in the right leg) (Lemaire, 1992). From his campaigns, he befriended a Polish count, count Krasinsky, whom he met in 1798 (Witczak, 1996).

In 1803, he attended the school of medicine in Paris and he was the successful candidate to the boarding school of the Parisian hospitals on that same year. In 1806, he defended his Phd thesis. Once again, he joined the army in 1808 where this time, he practiced medicine in the first class of the Polish Light Cavalry Regiment of the Imperial Guard commanded by count Krasinsky, his friend. He held this position until 1814. He refused any promotion and transfer (Lemaire, 2003; Witczak, 1996). First, his regiment fought in Spain, then left for Austria where he received the Legion of Honor in 1809. He took part in the confrontation in Russia in 1812 and in Germany in 1813. His behaviour was heroic in Dresde (August 26 and 27).

In 1814, he was once again present to defend his mother country. Following a light wound in Monterau, he was elevated to the rank of officer of the Legion of Honor on February 18. On March 7, at Craonne, he jumped from his horse to save a wounded man and took care of him on the battlefield. A cannonball exploded nearby Girardot who subsequently lost his leg. It was with a hanging bloody leg in shreds that he saw a group of cavalrymen. Still lucid, he recognized the Emperor and sat up on the battlefield, crying aloud “Long live the Emperor!” Napoleon witnessed the scene and immediately asked for a camp assistant. On his hospital bed, while a colleague cut his leg, Girardot was appointed Baron of the Empire. Even though he was the most unknown doctor to hold a title of Baron, he was however decorated like the most famous ones (Lemaire, 2003; Witczak, 1996).

Having served in the army of Condé, he was not bothered under the Restoration (Lemaire, 2003).

From 1816, he started living in Poland in Warsaw and then, Opinogóra, nearby Krasinsky’s family. There, he also treated Frederic Chopin, the famous composer. He also relentlessly dedicated the rest of his life to Warsaw’s little people (Witczak, 1996). In 1831, he died in Poland, his adoptive country.


Dupont Michel, Dictionnaire historique des Médecins dans et hors de la Médecine [Historical dictionary of the Doctors inside and outside Medicine], Larousse (ed.), Paris, 1999.

Lemaire Jean-François, Napoléon et la médecine [Napoleon and medicine], François Bourin (ed.), Paris, 1992.

Lemaire Jean-François, La médecine napoléonienne [Napoleonic medicine], Nouveau Monde (ed.) / Fondation Napoléon, Paris, 2003.

Witczak W., « François Girardot (1773-1831), chirurg polkiesgo pulku szwolezerow gwardii Napoleona I », in Arch. Hist. Filoz. Med., 1996 ; 59 (4) : 391-404.


(*) Dental Surgeon, Doctor in Epistemology, History of Sciences and Techniques, Laureate and national associate member of the National Academy of Dental Surgery.