Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis (1757-1808), doctor, count and senator of the Empire

by Xavier Riaud(*), FINS

Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis, (Corlieu, 1896, © BIUM).


Cabanis was born at Cosnac on June 5, 1757. His studies in the college of Brives being tumultuous and arduous, he was taken to Paris by his father. He was placed under the supervision of Turgot, Louis XVI’s minister. In Paris, he had a passion for poetry and devoted himself to study Homer’s texts. In 1773, he was the secretary of a Polish lord and accompanied him in Warsaw. From 1773 to 1775 he travelled in Germany and Poland where he lived for a while ( , 2010) . He read the greatest philosophers but it was in 1777 that he decided to begin a medical career after following Dubreuil’s advices, a friend doctor. He graduated on September 4, 1784 and took the oath in Reims ( Gourdol, 2010; Dupont, 1999). From 1785 to 1788, his name could be seen on many covers of literary works and scientific reports. In 1788, he published On the Degree of Certainty of Medicine ( Degré de certitude de la médecine). According to Pierre Jean Georges, medicine bordered on philosophy and resembled moral science. He was the first to fathom the intellectual activity according to biological and scientific levels (Baertschi, 2005; Levin, 1984; Mitchell, 1978; Turgeon & Whitaker, 2000). After the fall of the Bastille, Cabanis was intimately connected with Mirabeau, and he wrote four papers on public education for him. In 1791, during the illness which terminated his life, Mirabeau trusted entirely to Cabanis’ professional skills. During the Revolution, the doctor who was a great humanist rose up against death penalty. Stormy debates took place whether the condemned was still conscious when decapitated (Chazaud, 1998). Cabanis hold true to his principles and thesis which claimed the existence of a link between psychic and physiological life (Gourdol, 2010).

Between 1790 and 1793, the Directory of Paris and the Hospital Commission whom he was a member of, assigned him to various missions with the duty to make reports: Observations on hospitals (Observation sur les hôpitaux, 1790), Work on Education (Travail sur l’éducation, 1791), A Few Principles and Views on Public Aids (Quelques principes et quelques vues sur les secours publics, 1792), etc (Staum, 1974; Staum, 1978).

Befriending Mirabeau, Cabanis displayed Republican convictions. However, with the reign of Terror and the assassination of some of his friends, the doctor decided to keep them for himself aside for a while and to remain as discreet as possible. In July 1794, when his friends came to power and that the reign of Terror came to end, he went back to business.

Therefore, when the decree of December 4, 1794 was passed and which allowed the reopening of medical schools, Cabanis held the position of graduate assistant at the improvement clinic between 1794 and 1795. Between 1797 and 1798, he became Corvisart’s assistant. This was when he started to write a wide array of articles for the newspaper Le Conservateur in which he published either scientific essays, either articles of antiroyalist propaganda (Gourdol, 2010; Role, 1994).

On December 15, 1795, he became a member of the “Institut de France”. In 1796, he married the sister of the Marshal de Grouchy. Cabanis’ involvement on the articles aiming at organizing and reforming medicine and especially the training and the practice of it ( July 1, 1796, November 1 and 13, 1796, March 15, 1798, January 2, 1798, February 24, 1798 and September 26, 1798) was ubiquitous and he succeeded not without difficulty to have most of his program being implemented. In 1798, he was elected as the people’s representative in the Seine “département” and became a member of the Council of Five Hundred.

Back from Egypt (1799), Napoleon regularly went to Paris salons and seemed to share the ideas advocated by the intellectual elite. This was when Cabanis met the soon-to-be emperor. Constantly worried about the durability of medicine, he was a staunch supporter of the coup d’etat in front of the Council of Five Hundred. Consequently, he took part in most of the plots which led to the coup of 18 Brumaire (Role, 1994).

And yet, like a wide number of ideologists thinking that the principles advocated by the Revolution would be immortalized, he was soon saddened by the Corsican General’s new stance. Henceforth, he found refuge in his researches and went back to writing. In 1802, he wrote a major work entitled On the relations between the physical and moral aspects of man (Rapports du physique et du moral de l’homme ), a study which fell into two volumes, which was very successful and which helped him to rise to the rank of leader of the ideologists. He developed a theory according to which the origin of a man’s ideas came from the brain which received impressions (Baertschi, 2005; Levin, 1984; Mitchell, 1978; Turgeon & Whitaker, 2000). According to him, this organ had a major role in the physiological emission of thoughts (Staum, 1974; Staum, 1978).

On January 28, 1803, the Institute being reformed, he joined the class of French Language and Literature and sat at the number 40 (the soon-to-be the French Academy (Académie française)). On the same year, he was promoted Commander of the Légion d’honneur ( , 2010) .

In 1804, he published a work entitled On the revolutions and reform of medicine in Paris (Coup d’œil sur les révolutions et la réforme de la médecine à Paris) which gathered reports made on the functioning of medical schools.

A faithful disciple of Corvisart’s precepts, Cabanis advocated the examination of the patient, the anamnesis and observation of the symptoms of a disease at the patient’s bedside (Gourdol, 2010). He dramatically pointed out the dreadful death rate which grew rampant in hospitals. Faithful to Napoleon, he was promoted to the rank of Senator of the Empire but refused to seat for, as a staunch antiroyalist, he did not want to assent to the Emperor’s decisions. His political career came to an end. He got sick. He went back to the translation of the Iliad and finished writing the Letter to Thurot on Homer’s poems (Lettre à Thurot sur les poèmes d’Homère) in 1807. He died on May 5, 1808 of a congestion of the brain and was buried in the Pantheon. He was made Count of the Empire posthumously on May 23, 1808 (Gourdol, 2010).


Publications ( , 2010) :

Observations on hospitals (Observations sur les hôpitaux), 1789.

Journal of the Illness and Death of Honoré-Gabriel-Victor-Riquetti de Mirabeau (Journal de la maladie et de la mort d'Honoré-Gabriel-Victor-Riquetti de Mirabeau ), 1791.

On the Degree of Certainty of Medicine (Du degré de la certitude de la médecine) , 1797.

Report on the organisation of medical schools (Rapport sur l'organisation des écoles de médecine) , 1799.

Reflections on social organisation (Quelques considérations sur l'organisation sociale) , 1799.

On the relations between the physical and moral aspects of man(Rapports du physique et du moral de l'homme), 1802.

On the revolutions and reform of medicine in Paris(Coup d'œil sur les révolutions et la réforme de la médecine), 1804.

Observations on catarrhal affections and more particularly on the cold of the brain (Observations sur les affections catarrhales et particulièrement sur les rhumes de cerveau) , 1807.

Four speeches on public Education (Quatre discours sur l'Éducation publique) (found after his death).

Letter to Fauriel on first causes (Lettre à Fauriel sur les causes premières), 1824 (posthumous work).

Cabanis’ works were collected by François Thurot, in 5 volumes, from 1823 to 1825.


Bibliography :

Baertschi B., « Diderot, Cabanis and Lamarck on psycho-physical causality. », in History and philosophy of the life sciences , 2005; 27 (3-4): 451–63.

Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire (BIUM), personal communication, Paris, 2010.

Chazaud J., « Cabanis before the guillotine. », in Hist. Sci. méd. , 1998; 32 (1): 69–73.

Corlieu Auguste, Centenaire de la Faculté de Médecine de Paris (1794-1894) [Centenary of the Faculty of Medicine in Paris (1794-1894)], Alcan – Baillère – Doin – Masson (ed.), Paris, 1896.

Dupont Michel, Dictionnaire historique des Médecins dans et hors de la Médecine [Historical dictionary of doctors within and outside of medicine], Larousse (ed.), Paris, 1999.

Gourdol Jean-Yves, « Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis (1757-1808), médecin, philosophe et homme politique français  » [«  Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis (1757-1808), a French doctor, philosopher and politician »], in , 2010, pp. 1-5., Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis, 2010, pp. 1-4., Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis (1757-1808), biographie et œuvres, [Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis (1757-1808), biography and works,] 2010, pp. 1-2.

Levin A., « Venel, Lavoisier, Fourcroy, Cabanis and the idea of scientific revolution: the French political context and the general patterns of conceptualization of scientific change. », in History of science; an annual review of literature, research and teaching , 1984 Sep.; 22 (57 pt 3): 303–20.

Mitchell H., « The passions according to Adam Smith and Pierre-Jean-Georges-Cabanis. Two sciences of man. », in The Society for the Social History of Medicine bulletin , 1979 Dec.; 25: 20–27.

Role André, Georges Cabanis, médecin de Brumaire, [Georges Cabanis, the doctor of Brumaire ]Fernand Lanore (ed.), Paris, 1994.

Staum A. S., « Cabanis and the science of man. », in Journal of the history of the behavioral sciences , 1974 Apr.; 10: 135–143.

Staum M. S., « Medical components in Cabanis's science of man. », in Studies in history of biology , 1978; 2: 1–31.

Turgeon Y. & Whitaker H. A., « Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis (1757-1808): an early nineteenth century source for the concept of nervous energy in European behavioral neurosciences. », in Brain Cogn., 2000 Jun-Aug; 43 (1-3): 412-417.


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