Edme Joachim Bourdois de La Motte
(1754-1835), first doctor of the King of
Rome and Napoleon’s friend

By Xavier Riaud (*), FINS

Edme Joachim Bourdois de La Motte
(© National academy of medicine)


Edme-Joachim Bourdois de La Motte was born on September 14, 1754 at Joigny in the Yonne area. His father was a doctor and a member of the Royal Society. Vicq-d'Azyr , the father of comparative anatomy and Marie-Antoinette’s doctor paid tribute to him publically.

Having finished his studies in the secondary school of Auxerre (le Collège d’Auxerre) and then, his Master’s degree in Arts, Bourdois went to Paris to study medicine. During his studies, he shared his confined attic room with Nicolas Corvisart. The two men soon became close friends (Coquillard, 2009).

On February 1, 1777, Bourdois defended his second thesis, “the cardinal” one, which was about hygiene issues, on the following March 6. He proved the fact that during winter, staying close to the heat for too long was harmful. Then he defended his last two theses which dealt with pure medical practice. In 1778, when he was 24 years old, he began practicing medicine (Bibet, no date).

Despite repetitive fits of hemoptysis, he started his career as a doctor in the Hôpital de la Charité (“ Charity Hospital”) and as a doctor for the poor at the Saint-Sulpice parish and that of the Gros Caillou ( , 2010).

In 1779, he became the doctor of the Count de Provence, the soon-to-be Louis XVIII and was rapidly appointed doctor of the Luxembourg Palace, and that of the Château de Brunoy as well as intendant of the office of physics and natural history, a position created especially for him. He was appointed regent doctor of the University of Medicine. He had his own lodging at the Luxembourg Palace. In 1788, he was appointed first doctor of Madame Victoire (no author, 2010).

In 1793, Edme was imprisoned as he was found guilty of treason and was immediately sent to jail. Thanks to his wife’s continuing claims and the intervention of Antoine Dubois who was by then a surgeon and a member of the Army Council and a professor at the University of Medicine, he was released. After the fall of Robespierre, Bourdois was promoted. Dubois told him that a French expedition was about to reconquer Corsica with René Desgenettes leading the medical services. The position as chief doctor of the Army of the Alps was therefore left vacant. Bourdois seized the opportunity on September 7, 1794, and was in charge of the right flank (No author, 2010).

Vexed, Bourdois was soon to confront a disastrous reality: “The little number of old military establishments in this division, the great quantity of sick soldiers which flocked meanwhile, the absolute impossibility of ground evacuation because of bad country roads and sea evacuation due to a lack of buildings, led to a significant obstruction whose consequences were to be necessarily fatal if we had not hurried to prevent their effects. Since 1 Vendémiaire until 1 Ventôse, 54 000 sick men were sent to the army almshouses and 5 300 of them died there. As a result from that calculation, we can notice that for 4 months, the third of the army had spread in the hospitals and that death could be measured at the tenth of sickmen (Coquillard, 2009).”

Having to face epidemic typhus, Edme Joachim had to take emergency measures. He had the sick men carried into outdoor tents. He had the barracks cleaned and ventilated and a team of ambulance drivers trained. He distinguished himself with an untiring sense of self-sacrifice. He established hospitals with a great space between them and requisitioned convents and hospitals where the sick men could be treated night and day. After one month, the epidemic was checked. The men were in good spirits again.

Upon his return to Paris, Bourdois, who was also sick, was threatened to be arrested by the Directory. He was only just saved by Talleyrand (Fabre, 2010 & , 2010).

At this time, he was introduced to the General Bonaparte. The two men befriended. During their long walks in the countryside, Bonaparte regularly took the doctor to a specific valley. One day, the doctor who was taken aback, asked the general why he would always take him to the same place. Bonaparte was said to have stopped by a torrent and entrusted Bourdois with: “This is where Caesar has crossed the Rubicon!”

On October 13, 1795, Bourdois was dismissed after handing in his resignation for health issues from his position as chief doctor of the Army of the Cherbourg coasts. On October 26, 1795, Bonaparte asked him to hold the position of chief doctor of the Army of the Interior. The two men’s relationship reached a climax. He stopped his position as chief doctor of the 17 th military division of Paris on December 5, 1796. The day after 13 Vendemiaire, Napoleon who was worried, sent men to get news from the doctor. The relationship between the two friends worsened when Bourdois refused to accompany Napoleon during his campaign in Italy. The General, turning towards Bourdois, was said to tell him abruptly: “You are part of us, I hope!” Seeing that his friend, who was caught unprepared, hesitating, Napoleon who was offended simply replied: “Let’s not talk about it anymore!” but this confrontation weakened the bond between the two men. Dubois did not want to leave Paris, his work and above all his ailing wife to whom he owed everything. Back from Italy and then, Egypt, the General had refused to see the doctor again for fifteen years (Coquillard, 2009; , 2010).

In 1805, Frochot, the prefect of the Seine, appointed him to the rank of chief doctor of epidemics for the Seine “département”. His mission was to stop epidemics which grew rampant in the capital and its surroundings.

In 1806, following an order from the government, Bourdois was in charge of the epidemics which had appeared in Lay, near Sceaux. He noticed that the disease essentially contaminated the workmen working with metals, painters, potters using ceruse and women wearing white, a ceruse-based cosmetic. Bourdois de la Motte decided to resort to treatments recommended for such circumstances in England (Fabre, 2010).

After being inspector general at the University of France in 1809, he became adviser of the University in 1811. That same year, upon Corvisart’s recommendations, Napoleon summoned him as the first doctor of the King of Rome (No author, 2010).

Sire”, Corvisart told the Emperor, “sacrifice your revulsions in the name of your son’s interest; such a precious head should be entrusted to Bourdois’care!” On the same day, at the Tuileries Palace, the Emperor was reported to have told the doctor: “You are my son’s doctor! I could not give you a higher proof of trust; forget the past as I do myself!”

On December 29, 1811, he was made a Knight of the Légion d’honneur. On February 27, 1812, Bourdois was made a Knight of the Empire and then, Baron. His natural modesty pushed him to refuse this last distinction. He became a doctor at the Collège des Princes and the Emperor’s doctor (File taken from L. H.)

Talleyrand had become Bourdois’ close friend and yet had the habit to taunt his affected appearance: “One isalways mistaken on the account of two men who often come to my house; the first man is, Cobenzl (a famous Austrian diplomat) that one takes for my doctor, and the other, Bourdois, for my ambassador.”

While he devoted his time to Napoleon’s son and offered him the most attentive care, Corvisart humiliated him one day by putting his work into question and controlling its validity. Bourdois was visibly shaken but as he was full of dignity, he did not say a word about this humiliation. Ten years later, Corvisart was dying. He summoned Bourdois to come to his beside and apologized for his behaviour to which Bourdois reacted positively (Coquillard, 2009; , 2010) .

When the Empire collapsed, Bourdois followed the Empress Marie-Louis and her son in Blois. He could not resolve to leave his country. Under the Restoration, he went back to Paris and continued practicing. Most of his customers were well-off. He also became the doctor of the Department of Foreign Affairs in charge of the marine and the colonies. Louis XVIII named him his first doctor. Later on, Charles X did the same (Coquillard, 2009; sans auteur, 2010 & , 2010).

How can such longevity be explained? Why did he have such influence on royal medicine? Bourdois explained it in the following way: “I am far from claiming the first place in the field of medicine, which I consider to be an honourable art but I claim to practice it with pure intention and a love of humanity and if I dare say more, with impartiality. These are the only qualities that can make useful to men the sometimes astonishing skills that we meet in few doctors. My goal is to be useful, my duty is to give relief to the miserable, and my glory and reward are the respect that good people give me (Coquillard, 2009).”

Bourdois had always been greatly interested in vaccine trials against smallpox. He became a member of a newly-created organization called “the Society for the extinction of smallpox”, and became the chairman of the central committee of vaccination. He even succeeded to get some vaccine samples against smallpox from his friend Talleyrand and which France was desperately short of.

With his various works, Bourdois was admitted in all the great scientific organizations of his time. In 1806, he was made ordinary resident of the Royal Society of Medicine in Paris and it is as such that he gave to the First Consul “the best wishes and respect from the doctors of Paris in a speech that he deigned to listen with indulgence and kindness.”

He was admitted as one of the first doctors in the Royal Academy of Medicine which was created in 1820. He was its chairman in 1822, 1823 and 1829. He died on December 7, 1835. He was 82 years old (Coquillard, 2009 ; Fabre, 2010 & , 2010).

His last work was for the Academy of Medicine where, in 1835, he issued a report on Corvisart and his titles. His tribute to the imperial doctor, which was full of friendship, emotion and spicy anecdotes, was sensational and met a considerable success in the medical world. When he died, the Academy of Medicine suspended his researches ( , 2010).



Publications  ( , 2010):

Edme Joachim Bourdois de la Motte , An diù focis ardentibus assidere, malum ? , 1777, 4 p.  

Edme Joachim Bourdois de la Motte , An color sanguinis à vi vitæ ? , 1777, 8 p.  

Louis Charles Henri Macquart & Edme Joachim Bourdois de la Motte , Quaestio medico-chirurgica : An in omni tumore ut plurimum sit tentanda resolutio ? , Typis Quillau, 1778, 4 p.  

Jean-Jacques Delaporte & Edme Joachim Bourdois de la Motte , Quaestio medico-chirurgica : An variolis balnea tepida ? , Typis Quillau, 1778, 8 p.  

Edme Joachim Bourdois de la Motte , An in omni tumore ut plurimum sit tentanda resolutio ? , 1778, 4 p.  

Eugène Clément Hellis, Edme Joachim Bourdois de la Motte , Jean Alexandre Le Jumeau de Kergaradec & François-Joseph Double, Clinique médicale de l'Hôtel-Dieu de Rouen : précédée du rapport fait à l'Académie royale de médecine par Bourdois, Kergaradec et Double [Medical clinic of the Hotel Dieu of Rouen : preceded of a report made in the Royal Academy of Medicine by Bourdois, Kergaradec and Double] , Gabon, 1826, 270 p.  

Edme Joachim Bourdois de la Motte , Rapport sur les expériences magnétiques : faites par la Commission de l'Académie royale de médecine, lu dans les séances des 21 et 28 juin 1831 [Report on the magnetic experiments made by the Royal Academy of Medicine, read in the sessions of June 21 and 28, 1831] , 80 p.  

- Numerous reports on epidemics, a great amount of medical consultations and openings of cadavers of some of the greatest men of the time.

- Translation of a spanish thesis on the root of ratanhia, a plant used against some passive haemorrhages, Corvisart’s Journal de Médecine [Medicine journal] vol. XV, 1806.

- Biographies of Galien, Paracelse, Lapeyronie, Winslow and Quesnay.

Bibliography :

National Academy of Medicine, personal communication, 2010.

Bibet Jean-Pierre, National Records, Paris, no date.

Coquillard Isabelle, « Personnalité des deux Empires : La longévité médicale du Docteur Edme Joachim Bourdois de la Motte » [Inventory of two Empires : the medical longevity of Doctor Edme Joachim Bourdois de la Motte], in Napoleonica, 2009/3, n°6, pp. 146-170.

File of la Légion d’honneur, reference : L0324087

Fabre André, De grands médecins méconnus… [These unknown but great doctors], L’Harmattan (éd.), Collection Médecine à travers les siècles [Medicine throughout the centuries Collection], Paris, 2010 (à paraître)., Edme Joachim Bourdois de La Motte, 2010, pp. 1-9.

No author, « Bourdois de La Motte, Edme Joachim », in Les amis du Souvenir napoléonien [Friends of memories about Napoleon],, 2010, pp. 1-2.


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