Alexandre-Urbain Yvan (1765-1839),
Napoleon 1st’s general practitioner (staff)

by Xavier Riaud*, FINS , Medal of Honour of the companions of the INS,
INS Legion of Merit Medal.

Napoleon 1st, wounded in the foot during the Battle of Ratisbon,
was treated by the surgeon Yvan, on April 23rd 1809.
Painting by Pierre Gautherot (1769-1835) in 1810 (RMN photo agency, 2010).

 

He was born in Paris on April 28th 1765. He studied medicine in the military hospital of Toulon where he remained until 1792. A first class army assistant major, he was then assigned to the Italian army. He attended the Battles of Castiglione, Rivoli and Arcola. In 1798, he was promoted assistant lead surgeon in the Invalides. In 1800, he succeeded to Sabatier. On that same year, he was summoned to attend Bonaparte himself, which arose resentment and jealousy, notably from Pierre François Percy, the Great Army’s future head surgeon (1803). He attended all his campaigns and never left him until 1814. He was warmly branded with a nickname: “le Roustan de la chirurgie” (Lemaire, 2003). Thus, Yvan was able to attend the Emperor’s washing times. Omnipresent, he sometimes slept in the Tuileries so that Napoleon could call upon him at any time of day (Goldcher, 2004). In 1804, when the latter was organising his imperial house, Yvan implemented and organised his personal ambulance. In 1805, he became Napoleon’s general practitioner (Imperial Almanacs, 1805-1813) and he combined his role with that of surgeon major of the Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard (Meylemans, 2010). In 1807, he was presented with the “Légion d'honneur”. It caused more lamentation from his detractors (Lemaire, 2003).

He was a much appreciated surgeon for he was more conservative than Larrey. After each fighting, he wrote a reasoned and immensely detailed report on the number of casualties and killed (Dupont, 1999).

On April 23rd 1809, at the headquarters of Ratisbon, Napoleon was wounded. It was his second injury from the war. Constant recalled: “The blow was so strong that the Emperor remained seated; he had just received the bullet which had hit his heel. (…) An aide-de-camp came to look for me, and when I arrived, I saw M. Yvan trying to cutHis Majesty’s boot and I immediately helped him to dress the wound. Even if the pain was still sharp, the Emperor did not want to waste time to put his boot back on his foot. To give the enemy the impression that he had not been wounded and to reassure the army of his wellbeing, he saddled his horse and galloped forward with his staff… (Constant, 2000)”

In his Mémoires (2000), Constant reported the event once again and specified he had not been there when Yvan had dressed the wound, which seems more likely. Aubry (1977) maintained that a musket ball had hit the Emperor’s right heel. The contusion had hit a nerve and the foot had swollen in his boot which he had not removed for three days. According to Constant, Yvan had also dressed it. In his Mémorial, Las Cases (1999) reported the words of the Emperor who had told him that “a bullet had hit his heel.” This large bullet is exhibited at the museum of the army of Paris. Even though doubts remain as to who first dressed the Emperor, Yvan surely busied himself with Napoleon’s wound.

On January 31st 1810, Napoleon made him baron of the Empire to reward him. In 1811, he was officially made head surgeon of the Invalides (Lemaire, 2003). He remained so until 1832.

On the eve of the Battle of Borodino (September 7th 1812), the Emperor was in very bad shape. He consulted a physician who issued two very alarming health reports. After examining him, Yvan relativised his patient’s state of health through two letters and clearly qualified his colleague’s reports. “The Emperor was very sensitive to meteorological influences. Once his skin tissue was too tight, caused by moral or meteorological disorders, irritation and coughing often appeared with more or less serious influences, and grave ischury. All these health problems gave up to the recovery of his skin functions. From 5th to 6th, he was troubled with the equinox wind, fogs, rain and bivouac. His health problems were serious enough to be obliged to treat them with a potion we fetched in the middle of the night a league from the battlefield. He had fever and it was only after a few days of rest either in Mozhaysk or Moscow that the coughing and ischury ended (Macé, 2006).”

Yvan trivialised the incident which implied that these types of symptoms regularly occured. In a second letter, Yvan confirmed to Ségur his health report as the latter had demanded more information on the Emperor’s health. “The Emperor had a highly nervous constitution. He was submitted to moral influences and his spasm was usually between the stomach and bladder. When the irritation concerned his stomach, he usually suffered from nervous coughings which wore his moral and physical strengths out to the extent that his intelligence was not the same. When the spasm concerned his bladder, he was under the influence of an awkward and degrading position. Riding a horse increased his pain. He suffered from this spasm during the Battle of Borodino to the point that on the night of 6th to 7th, we had to ask his pharmacist, who was with the heavy luggage a league away from us, to make a potion (Macé, 2006).

Never wounded, Yvan was greatly bruised by a cannonball which passed under the chest of his horse, in Bautzen, in 1813 (Lemaire, 2003). In 1814, disrespecting the rules and the numerus clausus still in force which had previously set the numbers, the Emperor named him general inspector of the health service. On the night of April 12th to 13th 1814, in Fontainebleau, Napoleon tried to commit suicide. During the Russian campaign, the Emperor had already solicited Yvan to help him die and had asked him to give a decoction which could help him end his life. The surgeon was said to have given him a totally harmless belladonna and white hellebore based liquid. Then, in Fontainebleau, Napoleon tried to commit suicide and swallowed the drink which had no effect whatsoever. Thus, he asked the surgeon to give him something more effective. The latter refused and as he found Napoleon quite insistent, he panicked and ran away (Lemaire, 2003). Another version of the story stipulated that the first drink was effective and that Yvan succeeded in inducing vomiting to help clear the beverage from the body. As he was aware of the Emperor’s poor state of health and as he was panicking about being found guilty of the Corsican’s death, he fled. Yvan attempted to reconnect with the Emperor during the Hundred Days, but Napoleon never welcomed him as he was holding a grudge against him (Lemaire, 2003 et 1992 ; Goldcher, 2010).

He died in Paris, on September 30th 1839.

 

 

Bibliography:


Agence photo Réunion des Musées nationaux, personal communication, Paris, 2010.
Almanachs impériaux [The Imperial Almanacs], Testu & Cie imprimeurs, Paris, 1805 à 1813.
Aubry Octave, La vie privée de Napoléon [Napoleon’s private life], Bibliothèque napoléonienne [Napoleonic library], Tallandier (ed.), Paris, 1977.
Constant, Mémoires intimes de Napoléon Ier [Napoleon 1st’s intimate memoirs], Mercure de France (ed.), Paris, 2000.
Dupont Michel, Dictionnaire historique des Médecins dans et hors de la Médecine [Historical Dictionary of Physicians both inside and outside Medicine], Larousse (ed.), Paris, 1999.
Goldcher Alain, « Les blessures de Napoléon » ["Napoleon’s wounds"], in Revue du Souvenir napoléonien, http://www.napoleon.org, juin-juillet 2004 ; 453 : 3-7.
Goldcher Alain, Autopsie commentée de Napoléon Bonaparte [Napoleon Bonaparte’s commented autopsy], personal communication, Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, 2010, 218 p.
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.
Macé Jacques, Le général Gourgaud, Nouveau Monde (ed.), Fondation Napoléon, Paris, 2006.
Meylemans R., « Les grands noms de l’Empire » ["The great names of the Empire"], in Ambulance 1809 de la Garde impériale, http://ambulance1809-gardeimperiale.ibelgique.com, 2010, pp. 1-22.

 

(*) DDS, PhD in Epistemology, History of Sciences and Techniques, Laureate and associate member of the National Academy of Dental Surgery, Free member of the National Academy of Surgery.